The top Senate Democrat wants answers from Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy by Dec. 6 regarding the use of Chinese social media apps among soldiers.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., sent a letter to McCarthy on Thursday asking whether the Army consulted, or plans to consult, with intelligence officials and the Department of Homeland Security about the use of apps like TikTok as platforms for recruitment.
Schumer also asked McCarthy whether the Army has “conducted an analysis of alternative recruiting platforms prior to its decision to leverage TikTok?”
The questions come as the Army unveils plans for a new advertising campaign that aims to use digital analytics and social media platforms to target and recruit young people who show an interest in skills relevant to military service.
“While I recognize that the Army must adapt its recruiting techniques in order to attract young Americans to serve, I urge you to assess the potential national security risks posed by China-owned technology companies before choosing to utilize certain platforms,” Schumer wrote in his letter.
U.S. Army Recruiting Command, or USAREC, said it continuously reminds soldiers to remain vigilant about the risks of sharing personal information and data over social media, a warning that extends to TikTok.
“According to USAREC, recruiters are allowed to use various platforms to create awareness and connect with today’s youth but they are taught not to discuss any personally identifiable information (PII) over any social media platform,” Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Robin Ochoa told Army Times.
“When PII needs to be discussed, they must move to email, phone of face-to-face for personal discussion," Ochoa added.
Social media has long been under public scrutiny over the massive amounts of personal data that can be harvested from users, often without them fully aware.
American social media companies have also been accused of hoarding user data and sharing it in unethical ways. However, the ambiguity of the Chinese system and the lack of legal mechanism’s to challenge Chinese government requests is concerning to Schumer’s office.
That concern has been amplified as Chinese tech companies rise in prominence and the extent of the Chinese Communist Party influence over those companies remains illusive.
In recent months, national security experts have raised concerns about TikTok in particular. TikTok’s parent company is currently undergoing a national security review by the U.S. Treasury Department, according to multiple reports.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., also joined Schumer in October to ask for an intelligence assessment of not only TikTok, but other Chinese-owned platforms. The two lawmakers fear those firms may still be required to adhere to the laws of Chinese data-sharing regulations even though the data they collect is stored in the United States.
A TikTok spokesman told The Associated Press that their company has “no higher priority than earning the trust of users and regulators in the U.S," including “working with Congress.”
TikTok maintains that it’s not beholden to Chinese laws that compel native companies to support and cooperate with the intelligence work of the Chinese Communist Party.
The kinds of data potentially at risk includes user content and messages, IP addresses, user locations and metadata.
“Further, due to a lack of transparency and without an independent judiciary to review requests made by the Chinese government for user data or other actions, there is no legal mechanism for Chinese companies to appeal if they disagree with a request,” Schumer wrote in his Nov. 7 letter to McCarthy.
TikTok has more than 110 million downloads in the United States alone, and the compounding problems raised by apps that store and utilize user data aren’t relegated to recruiting.
In 2018, it was found that running routes and movement patterns around sensitive installations were often catalogued by fitness apps.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq. Follow on Twitter @Kyle_Rempfer