U.S. Army Looking Into National Security Concerns Over TikTok After Using It to Recruit Troops

Image: AP

The United States Army, which has attracted scrutiny for deploying its recruitment campaign on TikTok, hears the drums of the resistance, Reuters reports. On Thursday, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy announced that he’s ordered a national security assessment in response to a letter from Senator Chuck Schumer, who again flagged concerns over user data vulnerable to the clutches of the Chinese government, and asked, is TikTok really necessary?

Maybe. Earlier this year, U.S. Army Recruiting Command Commander Major General Frank Muth attributed a major recruitment boost to the military’s Gen Z-targeted social media platform. “I think [the campaign] has been pretty darn successful; we are getting what we call lift,” he told Military.com. “And it could be a meme, it could be a 30-second video that’s on Instagram or TikTok.”

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In a letter sent Nov. 7 to McCarthy, Schumer wrote:

Recently, the Army unveiled its plans for a new advertising campaign that would harness digital analytics and social media platforms to target and recruit teenagers that show an interest in skills relevant to military service. While I recognize that the Army must adapt its recruiting techniques in order to attract young Americans to serve, I urge you to assess the potential national security risks posed by China-owned technology companies before choosing to utilize certain platforms.

Schumer again sounded the alarms from his previous letter to the acting director of national intelligence to conduct a security probe: that the Chinese government could demand TikTok’s collection of user data including messages, location, device identifiers, and IP addresses, and that “there is no legal mechanism for Chinese companies to appeal if they disagree with a request” from the Chinese government. (Schumer’s not alone; senators including Republicans Marsha Blackburn , Tom Cotton, and Marco Rubio (R-FL) are all taking up the TikTok issue.)

Shortly after, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States announced a probe into TikTok. The New York Times has reported that anonymous sources briefed on that investigation “said that the American government had evidence of the app sending data to China.”

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TikTok has brushed off those concerns with a somewhat blithe outlook. When asked by the Times about the perception of TikTok as a national security threat, TikTok’s eccentric head Alex Zhu said he was “quite optimistic.” When asked what he would do if Chinese President Xi Jinping personally ordered him to turn over user data, he simply replied: “I would turn him down.” (Totally unrelated, but Zhu lists his location on LinkedIn as “Mars”; the Times profile is wild.)

TikTok has added again and again that it does not store U.S. user data in China, but that rings hollow given that it’s also denied that China-compliant censors overrule TikTok’s U.S.-based content moderators, contrary to very strong evidence. China-friendly content moderation has touched off worries that TikTok might be used to spread a Chinese-propagated worldview.

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Like all tech companies anticipating probes and legislation, TikTok covered its ass by announcing plans to “create a committee of outside experts” to “advise” on content moderation. It makes the ambiguous pledge of “transparency.”

TikTok can afford to be cavalier, as it could afford to pay off a $5.7 million settlement to the FTC earlier this year for allegations that it illegally collected data on children. And after just reaching 1.5 billion downloads as it gains power against Instagram’s fledgling copycat, TikTok’s looming large in the Apple Store. Earlier this week (which feels like a lifetime in TikTok news), reports circled that TikTok’s owner, Bytedance, has been in talks with major labels as it gears up to release a music subscription service. Which it it looks well-positioned to dominate.

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Service members do like it, though.

Gizmodo has reached out to TikTok for comment and will update the post if we hear back.

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Whitney Kimball

Staff reporter, Gizmodo. wkimball @ gizmodo