Government TikTok Ban Gains Steam as US Senate Votes to Forbid It on Government Devices

 In India

Beijing-based social media sen­sa­tion TikTok has been shown the door by a number of world gov­ern­ments recent­ly, rang­ing from the US mil­i­tary to the entire coun­try of India. The US Senate has now taken a big step toward ban­ning the video shar­ing app from all fed­er­al gov­ern­ment devices, as a panel has unan­i­mous­ly approved putting it before Congress. The bill still faces a full vote in the Senate, but has already passed the House as part of a recent defense policy bill. If the mea­sure is voted in by the Senate and suc­cess­ful­ly amend­ed into the House bill, it would lead to a TikTok ban on all devices through­out the US gov­ern­ment except for pur­pos­es of cyber­se­cu­ri­ty research.

The mea­sure is in line with the Trump administration’s recent over­tures toward a nation­wide TikTok ban, sim­i­lar to the one recent­ly imple­ment­ed by India. Such a ban would force Google and Apple to remove TikTok from their app stores and cease sup­port­ing it, great­ly reduc­ing its avail­abil­i­ty to US cit­i­zens.

The US movement toward a TikTok ban

Introduced by Senators Josh Hawley (R‑MO) and Rick Scott (R‑FL) in March, the 2020 No TikTok on Government Devices Act would forbid the instal­la­tion of the app (or pre­sum­ably access­ing the ser­vice via its web inter­face) on any gov­ern­ment device. Hawley noted that TikTok is required by Chinese law to pro­vide seats on its board of direc­tors to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) offi­cials, and that it is required to turn over any data it col­lects to the CCP upon request under the 2017 National Intelligence Law (require­ments that all Chinese com­pa­nies are sub­ject to). TikTok claims that user data from out­side of China is stored in the United States with a backup in Singapore; how­ev­er, the com­pa­ny has not cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly denied that it is shar­ing user data with the CCP.

Global sen­ti­ment toward a TikTok ban has mostly been driven by the spec­u­la­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties of the con­di­tions that Hawley cites, rather than any con­crete actions to date. However, con­cerns were accel­er­at­ed by reports that the app had been reverse engineered and that it had a fright­en­ing amount of sur­rep­ti­tious access to user devices and data. If the CCP has free access to this data, it is a major secu­ri­ty risk for any other world gov­ern­ment.

A sub­stan­tial amount of the US gov­ern­ment has already imple­ment­ed its own intra-agency TikTok ban for nation­al secu­ri­ty rea­sons. The State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the Transportation Safety Administration have already issued their own bans on gov­ern­ment devices. In early July, the Pentagon also issued guide­lines to the country’s rough­ly 2.1 mil­lion active and reserve mil­i­tary troops sug­gest­ing that it should be kept off of per­son­al devices. The Democratic National Committee has issued sim­i­lar guid­ance to staff, and Joe Biden has for­bid­den mem­bers of his cam­paign from having the app on their devices.

TikTok is most pop­u­lar among the 16 – 24 age group, and is used pri­mar­i­ly for short videos of dances and comedy skits. US politi­cians seem to only rarely be among its 26.5 mil­lion month­ly active users, and their staffers appear to be avoiding it as well. The app has become par­tic­u­lar­ly pop­u­lar with the gen­er­al public during the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, down­loaded 623 mil­lion times world­wide during the first half of 2020.

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has been float­ing the idea of a nation­al TikTok ban since early July. Both pres­i­dent Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have men­tioned in inter­views and public state­ments that such an action is under con­sid­er­a­tion. In addi­tion to the pri­va­cy con­cerns, Trump has includ­ed the idea that a TikTok ban might also be a puni­tive mea­sure in retal­i­a­tion for China’s role in the pan­dem­ic. India’s ban on the app also had a strong puni­tive ele­ment, prompt­ed by the mil­i­tary border clash­es that have been taking place in the Himalayas since early May.

Alternatives to a TikTok ban

A TikTok ban is not nec­es­sar­i­ly a real­is­tic propo­si­tion, how­ev­er. The most likely sce­nario would be to legal­ly pres­sure Apple and Google to remove it from the iOS and Android app stores in the US, by invok­ing the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. But Android users would still be able to “side­load” the app from other sources, which could open up an entire­ly new secu­ri­ty can of worms as preda­to­ry hack­ers take advan­tage of the chance to pass mal­ware in com­pro­mised ver­sions.

TikTok ban on all devices through­out the US gov­ern­ment is in line with the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s recent over­tures toward a nation­wide ban. #nation­alse­cu­ri­ty #respect­da­ta Click to Tweet

An out­side pos­si­bil­i­ty for resolv­ing this sit­u­a­tion is for TikTok to fully become an American com­pa­ny. A group of investors led by ven­ture cap­i­tal firms General Atlantic and Sequoia Capital is dis­cussing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of buying out TikTok from parent com­pa­ny ByteDance and moving the whole oper­a­tion to US shores. In addi­tion to already stor­ing and pro­cess­ing a sub­stan­tial amount of its data in the coun­try, TikTok has region­al offices in both New York and Los Angeles. The investors are report­ed­ly dis­cussing the pos­si­bil­i­ty with US reg­u­la­tors before making an offer.

CPO Magazine source|articles

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