TikTok bans on government devices raise questions about platform’s future

TikTok is getting banned from a growing number of federal and state devices, underscoring how political winds are turning against the platform given worries about China and raising questions about its future.

The latest development is the decision by Republicans and Democrats in Congress to include a measure banning TikTok from devices used by federal employees in the $1.7 trillion year-end omnibus bill setting out federal funding for the next year.

It follows similar moves by a host of state governments to keep TikTok off devices held by state government workers.

The decisions appear unlikely to lead to further bans on TikTok, which is owned by Chinese-based company ByteDance, on private devices, despite the introduction of such a ban in Congress last week.

“As far as individual users are concerned, at least for right now and for the time being, I don’t think it’s going to have much of an impact on the accessibility to individual consumers because the direct threat to users has not yet been recognized,” said Cyrus Walker, the founder and managing principal at cybersecurity firm Data Defenders.

The wildly popular social media platform has made serious inroads in the United States, with more than 85 million users in the U.S. alone, and is widely used across the country — particularly by people under the age of 20.

Walker, however, said the attention given to the bans on TikTok for devices used by federal and state workers could spark a wider conversation about privacy and security concerns with the app.

He also said it could lead private companies to tell their employees to keep the app off work phones.

“As we see this momentum build in the municipal space restricting or banning TikTok altogether, I think you’re going to see corporations, particularly larger ones, follow suit because of the threat of corporate espionage that could take place at a larger level,” he said.

Lawmakers have become increasingly concerned that by downloading the app, government workers are giving the Chinese government potential access to their devices that it could use to collect data on U.S. citizens.

Hannah Kelley, a research assistant in the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security, said that if the TikTok ban on federal government devices does become law, it would at least make some Americans question the validity of those concerns and ask themselves: “If the government isn’t comfortable with this app existing on federal infrastructure, should I be comfortable with it operating within my own home?”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), part of the group of bipartisan lawmakers who introduced legislation that would prohibit the use of TikTok nationwide, argued the possibly security threats of the app do extend to regular citizens.

“The federal government has yet to take a single meaningful action to protect American users from the threat of TikTok,” Rubio said in a statement.

“This isn’t about creative videos — this is about an app that is collecting data on tens of millions of American children and adults every day,” he added.

Introducing the bill, Rubio and Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) cited concerns recently raised by the FBI and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that the app is being used to spy on Americans in that way.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said in an interview with Axios last month that Congress banning the app was the only path forward in light of such concerns.

“There simply isn’t a world in which you could come up with sufficient protection on the data that you could have sufficient confidence that it’s not finding its way back into the hands of the [Chinese Communist Party],” Carr said.

The concerns date back to the Trump administration, which attempted to ban the social media platform in 2020 with an executive order that was later blocked by a federal court.

TikTok, which has pushed back on the concerns, said it was disappointed with states banning the app on government devices.

“We’re disappointed that so many states are jumping on the bandwagon to enact policies based on unfounded, politically charged falsehoods about TikTok,” a spokesperson said.

The spokesperson also denied that TikTok shares information with the Chinese Communist Party.

Experts are skeptical about that denial, however. They say that since TikTok is owned by a Chinese-based company, it is likely subject to Chinese laws, which require companies to comply with requests from the government for access to data originating from such apps.

“I mean, basically, you’re giving China an open door into your device and into your network,” Walker said.

“Just that relationship alone is a significant threat and risk to U.S. government assets,” he said, referring to ByteDance’s ownership of TikTok.

Beyond a ban on TikTok, Walker said the potential security threats posed by the platform could also plausibly be reduced if ByteDance were to sell it to an American company and completely divest itself from the app’s ownership. But he thinks such a move is unlikely.

He recommended that regular citizens worried about their privacy should simply delete TikTok from their phones.

Jamil Jaffer, founder and executive director of the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, similarly advised that users practice more caution.

“American consumers should be much more careful with their kids and their families using TikTok because while it may be a very appealing app to use from a social perspective, it is hugely problematic from a data collection and surveillance perspective,” he said.

But he also went a step further than Walker, who thinks regular citizens shouldn’t be forced not to use the app, arguing that it should be banned for all users across the U.S., regardless of whether they work for government or not, to protect the country.

“The problem is they’re collecting data on Americans … and use that data to leverage it against us as a nation,” Jaffer said. “I don’t think the ban should be about the government alone.”

“Clearly government employees shouldn’t have TikTok on their phone, but the app should be banned across the United States,” he added.

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