A Push-Up Contest on TikTok Exposed a Great Cyber-Espionage Threat

As TikTok gained popularity globally, many subcultures sprang up within the app. One group called Military TikTok featured members of the U.S. armed forces posting videos of push-up contests and pranks around their bases.

There was one potential problem, said Claudia Biancotti, an economist who studies cybersecurity. “Not all of these very young soldiers were aware of the fact they were potentially sending data to China,” Biancotti said on Foundering: The TikTok Story. “Potentially, the Chinese government could see exactly where these soldiers were.”

Episode five of the podcast explains how TikTok became a target of U.S. politicians who have drummed up fears that the fun-loving app could deliver data from tens of millions of Americans into the hands of Beijing. Their concerns are centered around TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance Ltd.

Currently, there’s no publicly available evidence that TikTok has passed American data to Chinese officials. A spokesman for TikTok said the app’s data is stored in the U.S. and Singapore, not in China. TikTok doesn’t allow users in China to access the app and instead places them in a separate platform called Douyin, the spokesman said. The company and its executives have consistently said they don’t hand over TikTok data to China.

Such a claim is difficult to verify, however, and there’s no guarantee it won’t happen in the future, said Biancotti, who followed the rise of Military TikTok as a visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a research group. Chinese law requires local companies to provide information if the government asks for it.

“They have no way to prove that they are in a position to say no to the Chinese government,” Biancotti said. “So I might believe that they want to, but I actually have no grounds on which to believe they can.”

Citing data security risks, several U.S. military branches have since banned TikTok from government-issued devices.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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