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U.S. Army bans TikTok on military devices, signaling growing concern about app’s Chinese roots

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The U.S. Army has banned the use of the popular video app TikTok on government-issued phones, following guidance from the Pentagon and highlighting growing tensions over the app’s Beijing-based parent firm.

Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Robin Ochoa told in an interview released this week that the app was “considered a cyber threat” and not allowed on government-issued devices. Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Crystal X. Boring told The Washington Post on Tuesday that the service branch was adhering to directions from the Defense Department, which flagged the app for “potential security risks.”

The measure follows a similar ban from the U.S. Navy and a “cyber awareness” message earlier in December from the Defense Department that urged the Pentagon’s roughly 23,000 employees to uninstall the app because it could potentially expose personal data to “unwanted actors.”

A Pentagon spokesperson, who requested anonymity because they were not allowed to speak publicly about the issue, said the threat is related to potential loss of personally identifiable information but would not provide further detail. TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Army’s ban and the rare notice from the Pentagon, which does not generally issue policy measures on individual social media services, reflects deeply rooted doubts throughout Washington about TikTok and its Chinese parent, ByteDance. Some of their suspicions stem from criticisms raised by TikTok’s former employees, who told The Post earlier this year that the company in the past restricted videos in alignment with Chinese rules on acceptable speech.

Inside TikTok: A culture clash where U.S. views about censorship often were overridden by the Chinese bosses

In response, TikTok has sought to rebut lingering privacy, security and censorship concerns. It says it stores U.S. users’ data in Virginia with a backup in Singapore, for example, and doesn’t apply Beijing’s strict content guidelines in the United States. But those assurances have hardly satisfied lawmakers, some of whom had planned to grill the app’s leader, Alex Zhu, on a trip he planned to make to Washington in December but ultimately canceled, citing scheduling conflicts.

In October, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked U.S. intelligence officials to investigate the app for national security concerns, fearing that Chinese spies could gain access to American users’ personal data. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), meanwhile, requested his own national security probe, which threatens to unwind the merger that made TikTok possible in the first place.

And Sen. Josh Hawley held a hearing this year with an eye on TikTok and its content moderation rules, responding to concerns that it limits what U.S. users see in line with Beijing's demands. The company declined to testify at the session, drawing a sharp rebuke from the Missouri Republican.

TikTok admits error after penalizing 17-year-old user who posted political videos

Military-related hashtags tend to be popular on TikTok: Videos mentioning #army have 10.6 billion views, for example, and those tagged as #military have more than 826 million views. Anyone can append those or other labels to the content they upload, but pages for each of those hashtags do include scores of clips of people dressed in military fatigues or referencing their time in the service.

The Defense Department has recommended that service members “be wary” of the apps they download and to research the developers’ ownership for “any suspicious foreign connections."

Uninstalling TikTok “will not prevent already potentially compromised information from propagating, but it could keep additional information from being collected,” the agency told military officials, according to a statement from a Defense Department spokesman.

In a transparency report released this week, the company said it responded to 298 legal or emergency requests for information on users from 28 countries in the first half of the year, including 107 from India and 79 from the United States.

TikTok also said it received 28 requests from government bodies in nine countries to remove content deemed a violation of local laws, and removed or restricted 25 accounts in response.

TikTok said it “did not receive any government requests to remove or restrict content” or any “legal requests for account information” from China.