Why Tik Tok is considered a national security threat

Tik Tok has until Nov. 27 to make a deal or else it could risk being banned from the U.S.

Posted: Nov 16, 2020 6:39 PM
Updated: Nov 16, 2020 7:08 PM

The clock is ticking again for Tik Tok.

The deadline for the company's Chinese owner to sell its U.S. operations was extended until Nov. 27. The original deadline was last Thursday. If a deal is not made, the app could be banned.

For many, Tik Tok is just the latest app for kids, young adults and the young at heart.

Lauren Parker, 19, from Madison calls herself the CEO of Alabama after one of her videos went viral. For her, the app is a way to connect to new people and showcase the state.

"I like to spread the idea that there are a lot of cool things to see here and a lot of fun things to do," Parker said.

Though the app is mainly used by Gen Z, Parker says there's more to Tik Tok than just kids dancing.

"There's really a community for everyone. I follow a couple of grandparents on Tik Tok, and they just make sweets for their kids. It's really so cute!" Parker said.

"I think during the whole COVID shelter in place thing, a lot more millennials and older have kind of joined the app as a joke as I did. They found content that they related with and interact with," Bethany Clark added.

She's a physical therapist in Birmingham. She uses Tik Tok to educate the younger generation.

"Kind of spreading awareness about how to get physical therapy, what our qualifications are, our education, why you might need it, etc." Clark explained.

With more than 66.7 thousand followers, she's sending her message.

"I created a community there, where people feel like they can ask me questions and they can get a response from me," Clark said.

But, that community may soon be gone as the U.S. government threatens to ban the app that was created in China. They believe the data Tik Tok collects could be a national security concern.

Former Alabama district attorney and current vice-president of Gray Analytics Jay Town says Tik Tok compiles all kinds of information into a data base. That includes contacts, calendar events, user location and anything that is on your device including your email and any attachments within those emails.

"Why would a video sharing application need those things?" Town said.

He further explained that if any of that data is considered intelligence, Tik Tok must share it with the Chinese government.

Several agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration and the United States Armed Forces have already banned the use of Tik Tok on federal government phones.

"It can be used in economic espionage, blackmail and other nefarious activities that a malign, foreign actor like China is absolutely engaged in right now at this very moment," Town said.

Right now, Tik Tok is in the process of making a deal with Walmart and Oracle. With this deal, all of the app's technology will be in possession of a new company called Tik Tok Global. It would comply with U.S. laws and privacy regulations. Oracle would also oversee the app's security by transferring all American data to its cloud center.

"If this deal were to go through, we would onshore the user data and secure those operating systems so they don't go back to China. They can't go back to China because they are firewalled from going back to China," Town said.

Other social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat are already prohibited from sharing user data with other countries because of U.S. laws. But several users say they aren't too worried about their information being out there.

"I've been on social media since I was like in 7th grade. I figure if there's any information on my phone or on the internet or on social media platforms, there's already someone who already has it. I don't think I have super secret information," Clark said.

But Town warns of China's long-term strategy to steal your data.

"They play a long game. They're not doing quick-hitters. They'll wait out a network for 20 years to get a little bit of information. While that information might not be useful right now because you are 22 and your contact list is a bunch of 22-year-olds, there might be a day where your contact list is going to include congressmen and military officers and CEOs you work for. It matters in that moment where that thing you are working on at the Arsenal with hypersonic propulsion or the next-gen of whatever and they want it and they need it. They now know how to get it," Town said.

If a deal between Tik Tok, Oracle and Walmart is not complete, people will not be allowed to download Tik Tok from the app store. Users also won't be allowed to get any updates, which could cause outages or glitches in the future.

In a transparency report, Tik Tok said it received almost 1,768 legal requests for user information from 42 countries. 16% of those requests came from U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Tik Tok says it reviews each request to determine whether they are authorized to gather that information for the investigation. The company added it will sometimes disclose user information without legal process, but only to prevent the imminent risk of death or serious physical injury to any person. You can read the full transparency report here.

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