The Controversy and Security Concerns Involving TikTok
By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University
TikTok is a popular video-sharing app that is used by 65 million active users in the United States. There is a concern with TikTok because it commonly draws users at a young age, who use the app to share content that can reach millions of people.
A study that consisted of 40,000 school-age children discovered that 25% of children identified that they live-streamed their content with someone they don’t know through a social media platform, according to the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children. TikTok also has a comment section that often leads to sexually abusive comments, content that appears to promote eating disorders, and content that promotes self-harm. This type of content upsets users and creates emotional damage.
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TikTok Has Serious Security Concerns
In addition to the potential emotional damage that TikTok usage generates for younger users, there is a growing security concern regarding how TikTok uses personal information and data. TikTok is a China-based social media company that merged with the video-sharing app Musical.ly in 2017. On February 27, 2019, it was announced by the Federal Trade Commission that Musical.ly agreed to pay the largest civil penalty ever obtained by the Federal Trade Commission — $5.7 million.
The complaint held that TikTok illegally collected personal information from children and that it violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires online services such as TikTok to obtain parental consent before asking for personal information from children under the age of 13. According to Federal Trade Commission Chairman Joe Simons, the company “knew many children were using the app but they still failed to seek parental consent before collecting names, email addresses, and other personal information from users under the age of 13.”
Another concern noted in the investigation was that user accounts were set to public as a default. That setting resulted in a child’s profile bio, picture and videos being able to be viewed by others outside of the child’s network, increasing the child’s vulnerability to predators.
The complaint also advised that until October of 2016, the TikTok app had a feature that enabled users within a 50-mile radius to view other users in the same area. In fact, there were incidents where predatory adults had attempted to contact children through the app.
Steps the US Government and Private Companies Have Taken Against TikTok Use
Both the Army and Navy have banned the use of TikTok on government phones. Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Robin Ochoa said, “it is considered a cyber threat.”
Similarly, the Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard have also banned TikTok on government devices. Also, the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration has banned the use of TikTok as an agency social media platform as the United States questions whether the China-based app presents a threat to national security.
Missouri Senator Josh Hawley is the chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. In March 2020, Hawley announced that he would introduce legislation to ban all federal employees from using TikTok on government devices.
Senator Hawley said that “TikTok is owned by a Chinese company that includes Chinese Communist Party members in leadership, and it is requires by Chinese law to share user data with Beijing. TikTok has admitted that it has sent user data to China. To put it bluntly, this is a major security risk for the American people. . . This legislation is a necessary step to protect the security of the United States and the data security of every American.”
In early July, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo advised that the Trump administration is considering restricting user access of TikTok in the United States out of concern that it is potentially used by the Chinese government to surveil and propagandize people.
Private companies are also banning TikTok. For example, Wells Fargo prohibits TikTok from being downloaded on company phones due to concerns regarding TikTok’s privacy and security controls.
TikTok remains a controversial social media platform. But if someone chooses to use the TikTok app, it is important to ensure that security features are set to protect the user and ensure that employers do not have any restrictions in regard to its use.
About the Author
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski has been involved in homeland security for over two decades and he is an associate professor at American Military University. He has engaged in speaking engagements in the United States and Central America on the topic of human trafficking. Most recently, he presented at the International Human Trafficking Conference. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering. Jarrod was selected as the Coast Guard’s Reserve McShan Inspirational Leadership Award recipient for 2019.