By Michael Madrid
A severe topic of discussion lately has been whether or not there is a TikTok threat, especially as it relates to military personnel using the app on base. Recently, senior Republican on the Federal Communications Commission, Brendan Carr, expressed concern over the amount of sensitive data Americans are uploading and possibly handing over to the Chinese government, including military personnel. Are they sharing your data with the Chinese government? Are they using it for malicious intent? Let's look at what information we know TikTok is gathering and what they’re doing with your data.

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Is There a TikTok Threat to National Security?

Recently, nine Republican U.S. senators, following reports conducted by BuzzFeed News, wrote in a letter to the CEO of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, that they are concerned about the company giving officials in Beijing "backdoor access" to private user data. The BuzzFeed News report explains that between September 2021 and January 2022, nine different TikTok employees indicated that engineers in China had access to U.S. data. This information follows an executive sworn testimony in an October 2021 Senate hearing that a "world-renowned, U.S.-based security team" determines who has access to this data. The BuzzFeed News report goes on to uncover info shared by eight different TikTok employees who said that there are situations where U.S. employees had to turn to their colleagues in China for help to make sure user data was flowing correctly. In one of the tapes, a director from TikTok referred to one of the Beijing-based engineers as a "Master Admin" who apparently "has access to everything." In the letter, the Senators noted, "The implications of these findings are stark, but not surprising." Instead, "they simply confirm what lawmakers long suspected about TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance—they are using their access to a treasure trove of U.S. consumer data to surveil Americans." In a testimony before the Subcommittee on National Security of the United States House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr also expressed concern over what he feels is the TikTok national security threat. In his testimony, he said, "At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data."

TikTok, Chinese, Data, and Your Privacy

So, what information exactly does TikTok gather from its users? TikTok, like many other social media platforms, collects a plethora of information, including your I.P. address, location, search history, messages, and what you look at and for how long. If given access, TikTok can collect your phone and social network contacts. According to Brendan Carr, "TikTok's own disclosures state that it collects everything from search and browsing histories to keystroke patterns and biometric identifiers, including faceprints and voiceprints. Let's not forget they can access all your user-generated content, including your videos and pictures. Typically, as with TikTok and other social media platforms, the information they collect from you is then used to prime content and advertisements you may find appealing. Whether or not you're comfortable with TikTok having that much information about you is a personal decision.

Still, military services have already concluded to ban the use of TikTok from all government devices.

Military members can still download it on their personal devices, but considering all the information TikTok collects, that may change. Carr says, "With TikTok, this is a device right in your pocket. It's going inside the military installation, looking at location data, which can give people information on troop movements."

TikTok Data Privacy Settlement

As of 2022, the video app was a part of a TikTok data settlement over privacy. We can't say for sure what data privacy issues TikTok was violating, given they settled out of court, but we can look at the allegations levied against them. The main issue in the settlement was over privacy concerns. The plaintiffs allege TikTok improperly obtained biometric data, mined user information from unposted drafts, and wrongly shared data with third parties such as Google and Facebook. TikTok also violated the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, which gives the citizens of Illinois the right to press legal action against TikTok for using their biometric information without their consent. TikTok settled out of court for $92 million, but users are becoming wary of their privacy following the settlement. According to TikTok, "While we disagree with the assertions, rather than go through lengthy litigation, we'd like to focus our efforts on building a safe and joyful experience for the TikTok community."

Does the FCC Have Authority Over Apps and App Stores?

app store In Brendan Carr’s testimony, he revealed he told Apple and Google that they should remove TikTok from their app stores. "It is not just an app for sharing funny videos or memes," read Carr's letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. "That's the sheep's clothing." Google and Apple never responded to Carr's concerns. Unfortunately, the FCC has no authority over apps such as Instagram and TikTok. Carr acknowledged this fact during an interview with Yahoo! Finance. "We don't necessarily have direct regulatory authority at the FCC, unlike what we do with Huawei, ZTE, and China Mobile, where we've taken action," he states. "So it's possible they could tell me to pound sand." He did mention that pressure from other lawmakers in Washington and President Joe Biden's Commerce Department may be able to put pressure on Google and Apple to remove the app from their platforms. Whether or not the TikTok threat is as severe as some believe, military members won’t be able to use the app on any of their government-issued devices, and a full TikTok ban from military installations may not be out of the question for the near future.

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Image: Ascannio - stock.adobe.com



app store
brendan carr
national security
privacy policy
tiktok threat

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