The U.S. military is cracking down on service members’ use of certain popular apps because the information collected by those apps could pose a threat to national security.
Large apps releasing data collected about its users to marketing and research companies is a common occurrence, but some apps, ranging from dating to exercise apps, have been flagged and even banned by the U.S. military because of the risk of foreign espionage.
In Jan. 2020, several branches of the U.S. military banned the use of the app TikTok on government-issued electronic devices after a warning from the Department of Defense in December 2019 that the app may pose a risk to users’ personal information. TikTok, one of the most popular apps in the world, is a short video-sharing social networking app. It also happens to be owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. The Pentagon was concerned that videos created on the app might be used by foreign actors to learn the location of critical military installations and assets.
Congress has even reviewed the national security risks posed by the TikTok app. Democratic New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and Republican Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton sent a letter to Joseph Maguire, the Acting Director of National Intelligence, asking him to conduct a study on the risks posed by TikTok and similar Chinese-owned apps. The senators argued that app companies like TikTok might be forced to hand over its users’ data to the Chinese government and that Chinese law provides few allowances for an appeal if the decision is made to request the data. (RELATED: Sen Hawley Introduces Bill Thwarting American Companies From Engaging With China)
“ByteDance is still required to adhere to the laws of China,” they wrote. “There is no legal mechanism for Chinese companies to appeal if they disagree with a request.”
TikTok has claimed that all of the data collected from U.S. users is stored either in the U.S. or Singapore and that the company does not operate any data centers in China.
TikTok has also been accused of censoring users who are critical of the Chinese government. TikTok has reportedly removed videos mentioning Tibetan independence, Tiananmen Square and the proscribed religious group Falun Gong at the behest of China. One TikTok user reported that the app had suspended her account after she used it to speak out about Chinese detention camps.
In 2017, Strava, a popular fitness app, released a map of the bicycle paths and running trails used by its over 27 million users. A few months later, an observant Australian university student pointed out on Twitter that the map could be used to locate U.S. military bases. After a subsequent investigation revealed that the map revealed the exercise routes of military personnel on hundreds of U.S. bases in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the Pentagon announced in August 2018 that it would ban U.S. troops in combat zones from using GPS software in smartphones, fitness bands, watches and other electronic devices.
Some apps have been banned by the U.S. military for less pressing reasons. The military banned the popular mobile game Pokemon Go after several incidents of it distracting personnel while walking or driving.
Other apps have been banned by private companies. Both Google and Apple banned the video chat app ToTok after several U.S. intelligence officials found that the app was being used by the government of the United Arab Emirates as a spying tool. Developed by the wealthy Arab nation, ToTok allowed the U.A.E to collect every bit of information about the users on the app, including conversations, appointments, images and audio. The U.A.E. has previously used its cyberintelligence service to hack Western journalists and drain bank accounts of those who are critical of the government.
Even dating apps have come under scrutiny for their potential risks to national security. Popular apps such as Tinder, Hinge and Grindr could also provide foreign actors with sensitive information about users. Grindr, one of the most popular dating apps for LGBT individuals, is owned by the Chinese company Kunlun Tech. Kunlun Tech could be subject to the same data requests from the Chinese governemnt as ByteDance. (RELATED: FTC Sues Parent Company Of Popular Dating Platforms Match.com, Tinder For Fake Ads)
John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, told NBC News that foreign intelligence services could use the information given by users on the dating apps to deceive or blackmail individuals. “There’s a lot of information there in the app that you’re voluntarily turning over,” he told NBC. “Some of it you know you’re doing, some of it maybe you don’t realize.”
“If I’m starting a lure operation, for instance, I can find the kind of person I think that you will like and I will have them approach you.” He added.
“Chinese law requires a Chinese company to share any information that it has with the Chinese government if it’s asked for that information for national security reasons. The other thing we know is that China is a top-down authoritarian country. So law or no law, if your future livelihood as a business depends on the government’s happiness with the way you behave, you’re gonna turn over that information,” Demers concluded.
While it is illegal for the U.S. government to obtain data from a company without a warrant, private companies may buy and sell data with little to no barriers, raising the possibility that a private tech company could sell Americans’ data to a company owned by a foreign nation or able to be coerced by one to give up that data. So far, Washington has done little to address the issue of data security, and Americans’ data is a hot commodity for savvy companies and foreign governments.