TikTok application icon on Apple iPhone 11 screen close-up. Hand holding smartphone Tik Tok icon on wooden background. Tiktok Social media network

Congress Bans TikTok on Government Devices

As concerns grow over potential misuse and abuse of U.S. consumer data

Last week, Congress passed a bipartisan spending bill that includes the banning of TikTok from government devices as concerns grow over potential misuse and abuse of user data, says CNBC. Notable exceptions to the law include use by law enforcement and for national security and research purposes. The key issue is that TikTok is owned by China-based ByteDance. Though U.S. user data is not physically housed in China, there are still concerns that the data could be accessed by the Chinese government.

After the passage of the bill, a TikTok spokesperson issued the following statement:

“We’re disappointed that Congress has moved to ban TikTok on government devices — a political gesture that will do nothing to advance national security interests — rather than encouraging the Administration to conclude its national security review. The agreement under review by CFIUS will meaningfully address any security concerns that have been raised at both the federal and state level. These plans have been developed under the oversight of our country’s top national security agencies — plans that we are well underway in implementing — to further secure our platform in the United States, and we will continue to brief lawmakers on them,” the spokesperson said.

This news comes about six months after the Federal Communications Commission asked Apple and Google to ban TikTok from their respective app stores. Commissioner Brendan Carr said, “TikTok poses an unacceptable national security risk due to its extensive data harvesting being combined with Beijing’s apparently unchecked access to that sensitive data.”

States banning TikTok on state-owned devices

The federal government is following the lead of more than a dozen states who have also banned TikTok from state-owned devices, reports NPR. The states include the following:

  • Alabama
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Iowa
  • Louisiana – partial ban
  • Maryland
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia – partial ban
  • Wyoming

According to NPR, the governors who have called for the ban are reacting to concerns stated by FBI Director Christopher Wray’s testimony before Congress in November.

“The director of the FBI recently warned that the Chinese government can control TikTok’s content algorithm, allowing it to perpetrate influence operations within the United States,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wrote in a December 7, 2022 letter to the lieutenant governor and state House speaker announcing that state’s ban.

Gov. Abbott also wrote, “While TikTok has claimed that it stores U.S. data within the U.S., the company admitted in a letter to Congress that China-based employees can have access to U.S. data. It has also been reported that ByteDance planned to use TikTok location information to surveil individual American citizens.”

During Wray’s testimony, he said the FBI had national concerns, particularly the possibility that the Chinese government could use TikTok to “control data collection on millions of users.”

State of Indiana sues TikTok

In early December, Indiana attorney general sued TikTok, alleging that the video-based social platform exposes minors to inappropriate content and makes user data accessible to the Chinese government. One of two lawsuits against TikTok allege that China could potentially use the vast amount of U.S. user data in the name of their own national security or “to spy on, blackmail, and coerce” users, reports The Washington Post.

“The TikTok app is a malicious and menacing threat unleashed on unsuspecting Indiana consumers by a Chinese company that knows full well the harms it inflicts on users,” Attorney General Rokita said. “With this pair of lawsuits, we hope to force TikTok to stop its false, deceptive and misleading practices, which violate Indiana law,” said Attorney General Todd Rokita in a December 7 statement.

“In multiple ways, TikTok represents a clear and present danger to Hoosiers that is hiding in plain sight in their own pockets,” Rokita said. “At the very least, the company owes consumers the truth about the age-appropriateness of its content and the insecurity of the data it collects on users. We hope these lawsuits force TikTok to come clean and change its ways.”

TikTok fires four employees for accessing journalist data

CNN Business reports that four TikTok employees accessed user data from two journalists, one at the Financial Times and one at Buzzfeed, to identify possible employee leaks to the press. Two employees based in the U.S. and two in China have been fired as a result.

“The individuals involved misused their authority to obtain access to TikTok user data,” TikTok CEO ShouChew said in his email to employees, according to an excerpt of the email reviewed by CNN. “This is unacceptable.”

Insider Take

TikTok has been in the hot seat since former President Donald Trump was in office for potential misuse and abuse of U.S. consumer data. The federal and some state governments remain concerned are taking action by “banning” TikTok on government devices. This, however, is like a law with no teeth. The government cannot control what apps consumers download to their phones or how they use it. They also cannot control how the maker of apps use consumer data, though there are laws in place to protect consumers around terms and conditions of use.

How does this impact TikTok subscriptions? Not much – yet. TikTok offers a LIVE subscription product, a monthly subscription that gives subscribers access to their favorite TikTok creators. Subscribers can also unlock special perks, badges, custom emotes, subscriber-only chat, and more. At this point, state and federal bans of TikTok on government devices will not impact TikTok LIVE subscriptions or their subscribers. However, if the concern for TikTok continues to grow, some creators may opt to move to other platforms (e.g., Facebook and Instagram Reels) to avoid any potential issues.

The concern for appropriate data usage may also be a concern for subscription brands that use TikTok for promotional purposes. We don’t think those brands will lose their target audiences, because most government employees also have personal devices on which to download and watch TikTok, but this should be on their corporate issues-to-watch lists.

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