Chinese-owned TikTok has suffered a setback in its quest to be the next world-dominating social media platform. Over the holidays, the U.S. military banned all of its personnel from using the app on government-issued devices.
“It is considered a cyber threat,” Lt. Col. Robin Ochoa, an Army spokesperson, told Military.com, which broke the story on Dec. 30. “We do not allow it on government phones.” This is an about-face from just a few months ago when Army recruiters were using TikTok to recruit.
The ban follows an October 2019 call to investigate TikTok as a potential national security risk by senators Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). The big worry over the app is that it’s Chinese—TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance—because Chinese cybersecurity laws state that the government can request user data on demand.
ByteDance says it stores its U.S. user data in the United States (with a backup in Singapore), arguing that because of that, U.S. user data isn’t subject to Chinese law. But Chinese regimes are famously opaque, and U.S. lawmakers and military leaders are concerned that TikTok could be used to influence or surveil Americans.
The Navy and the Department of Defense have been worried about TikTok being used on government devices for a while—both entities told its members not to add the app to their phones and to delete it if they’d previously downloaded it. In November 2019, the DOD instructed employees to “uninstall TikTok to circumvent any exposure of personal information,” according to Military.com.
The ban makes sense for the military. The U.S. performs operations, covert and otherwise, all over the world, and obviously needs to keep its communications and data secure.
But should average Americans have concerns about using TikTok? And did the ongoing technology race between China and the United States—in which the two countries try relentlessly to best each other with apps, platforms, and e-comm designed for world domination—factor in to the government-led investigation of TikTok?
The app has soared in popularity in the Western world, in the mold of Instagram before it. The New York Times reported in November that since late 2018, TikTok’s app has been downloaded “more than 750 million times, more than Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat, according to the research firm Sensor Tower.”
But there have also been concerns over censorship. When heated protests over Chinese rule were happening in Hong Kong last year, there was little proof of it on TikTok, leading watchers to wonder if the app was being instructed to take down user content that was perceived as anti-Chinese government.
ByteDance says the Chinese government doesn’t censor its content, and a spokesperson told The New York Times that the app’s content policies “are led by a team in the United States and are not influenced by any government.”
(Photo courtesy of TikTok)
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