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Terms of Use: Disarming Ourselves, Arming Russia and China

Are your selfies and karaoke videos actually a national security threat? And have you given rogue countries access to your information? Hm.

FaceApp, which alters user pictures by using application (app) features, went viral after celebrities posted their images on social media. This app was created by a Russian developer more than two years ago. The Chinese karaoke app TikTok, which relies on user-generated videos, is currently ranked in the top five U.S. apps in the Google Play and iOS apps stores, per AppAnnie.

In April 2018, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) released a joint Technical Alert about malicious cyber activity carried out by the Russian Government.

In May 2019, a Department of Defense (DoD) report to Congress stated that China is leveraging widespread theft of technological secrets in the digital domain as one of the key pillars of its military modernization strategy. U.S. government officials have been pressuring Chinese gaming company Beijing Kunlun Tech to sell Grindr, a popular gay dating app it has owned since 2016 because a US government national security panel raised concerns about its ownership.

The Trump administration blacklisted Huawei, a Chinese telecommunication company, and more than five dozen of its affiliates from buying American technology and components over national security concerns. A prominent reason for the ban on Huawei’s products were allegations that the technology was being used to spy for China through built-in mechanisms by intelligence agents. Clearly, the U.S. government understands the blurred lines between corporation and state in China.

Are American app users handing over sensitive information to adverse countries that may weaponize this data against us? It is certainly possible, but FaceApp, TikTok and Grindr are taking information from Americans through legal means. Each of these companies has provided Terms of Use agreements that users agree to before use.  FaceApp provides for a perpetual license to the images posted, and TikTok reserves a royalty-free license to use your user name, image, voice, and likeness.

Grindr is granted an irrevocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free “license to reproduce, distribute, publicly display and perform, prepare derivative works of, incorporate into other works, and otherwise use and exploit” user content (through unlimited tiers of sublicenses). Scary stuff considering sexual and gender minority people in China still live in the shadows, with homosexuality being officially considered as a mental illness until a few years back and Chinese clinics still offering ‘conversion therapy’ to cure what more than half of Chinese people see as ‘the condition.’

By clicking past these app terms of use, using these viral apps, and posting images and videos, we may be equipping adverse nations with the weapons of the next frontier of warfare; cyber.

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