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Congress and the Biden administration are currently considering bans or requiring changes to ownership for the popular social media app TikTok. Their concerns stem from the app's current Chinese ownership group and issues around data security for American users, as well as the potential spread of false information to Americans by foreign actors.
Veterans and military families should be especially aware of the risks involved with the use of TikTok. Most Americans hold veterans and military families in high esteem. With that trust and respect comes responsibility, and that includes all aspects of operational and national security, including what is on your phone.
Here are five reasons veterans and military families should be concerned about TikTok.
1. Securing Sensitive Information
TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, can access and record every keystroke made by American users on their phones -- even when the app is not actively being used. As a result of a 2017 Chinese cybersecurity law, ByteDance could be compelled to share data with the Chinese government. Thus, Beijing could collect sensitive information and be given a powerful tool for espionage against American targets. For military families, this could include data that endangers operational security, such as unit movements and timelines, training details, and locations pinpointed to the individual level. For these reasons, the U.S. Army banned the use of TikTok on government-owned devices in 2019, and all government employees faced a similar restriction as of last December.
2. Protecting Military Children
Military kids are also high-value targets because they have the ability to unintentionally or accidentally provide potentially sensitive information as a result of actions taken in their everyday lives. The children of service members and veterans could also be specifically targeted, and TikTok's core audience skews younger than most social media apps and networks. Once data is available to foreign bad actors, TikTok users could be susceptible to phishing or location tracking. This would include not only the Chinese Communist Party, but any other government or non-state actor to whom the Chinese might sell or share information.
3. Insulating Against Misinformation
Because veterans and military family members enjoy a high level of trust amongst the American public, they have a responsibility to be thoughtful about the kind of information they share. An increasing number of adults today get their news from TikTok and, like any social media platform, TikTok can be a purveyor of misinformation. Incorrect or misleading information (regardless of the intent to mislead) has consistently played a detrimental role in the political and ideological discord that currently plagues our country. What makes TikTok particularly dangerous is the chance that the app's algorithms could be manipulated or abused to push the most harmful types of misinformation to the most vulnerable users.
4. Defending Against Disinformation
While misinformation is typically defined as falsehoods that the user doesn't know are falsehoods, disinformation is deliberately misleading or biased information, typically spread with malicious intent. This is one area where U.S. political leaders find common ground. The Biden administration has warned against the spread of disinformation from China. Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., wrote an op-ed last November where they warned, "The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] could also use TikTok to propagate videos that support party-friendly politicians or exacerbate discord in American society."
5. Halting Propaganda from Anti-American Groups
Should the Chinese government choose to share data collected on TikTok, anti-American and anti-democracy groups around the globe would be able to use it for their own nefarious intentions. Both international and domestic bad actors -- terrorists, Nazis, anarchists, etc. -- have recruited veterans because of their leadership skills and weapons training. The propaganda they spew, in combination with mis- and disinformation, can lead to detrimental results for our nation and our democracy.
President Biden has cited national security concerns in his proposed plan requiring TikTok's Chinese owners to divest their stake in the app. While the administration and Congress decide how to act, veterans and military families should take particular care when using TikTok -- for their own interest and the best interest of all Americans.
-- Ellen Gustafson is the co-founder and co-executive director of We the Veterans, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that empowers the veteran and military family community to strengthen American democracy, and she is a proud military spouse.