Renewed Effort to Ban TikTok for Federal Employees

Legislation has been reintroduced to ban federal employees from using TikTok. Just how unsafe is this application?

Legislation was recently reintroduced to ban federal employees from using TikTok on their government issued devices.

The No TikTok on Government Devices Act (S. 1143), sponsored by Senator Josh Hawley (RMO) is pretty straightforward – it would require federal agencies to ban the application on government devices. However, the text of the bill does state that there would be exceptions granted for “law enforcement activities, national security interests and activities, and security researchers.”

Why Ban TikTok?

In Hawley’s own words, “TikTok is a Trojan Horse for the Chinese Communist Party that has no place on government devices—or any American devices, for that matter.”

The Senators supporting the bill feel strongly that the application is a national security risk and that using it on devices issued by the federal government would be unsafe.

“TikTok poses a potential threat to personal privacy and our national security interests,” said Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). “There is absolutely no reason why this application, which Beijing can use to advance its malign foreign policy initiatives, should be utilized on federal devices. In its current form, this platform is not safe. I’m proud to join Senators Hawley and Scott in introducing this bill.”

Congressman Ken Buck (R-CO), who has introduced companion legislation in the House, said that TikTok is required to report user data to the Chinese Communist Party which he calls a “serious cybersecurity threat.”

The same bills were introduced last year. Despite the Senate version passing the Senate unanimously, the bill never became law.

What is TikTok?

For those who may not know, TikTok is an application for creating and sharing videos.

The company’s website describes it this way: “TikTok is the leading destination for short-form mobile video. Our mission is to inspire creativity and bring joy.”

Is TikTok Really Unsafe?

That depends on who you ask. The American government obviously thinks so since some in Congress want it banned and the military banned it over ties to China.

However, an article in Forbes said that reports which call the app nothing more than Chinese spyware were not accurate, but that the app does raise concerns in two other ways: it “occasionally releases software with security vulnerabilities that need to be urgently fixed” and it also captures personal data on its users because it’s a social media platform.

With respect to the personal data collection aspect, a lawsuit just filed in the United Kingdom alleges “that TikTok takes children’s personal information without sufficient warning, transparency or the necessary consent required by law, and without parents and children knowing what is being done with their private information,” according to The Guardian.

A USA Today analysis of TikTok said, “…no evidence suggests that TikTok is any more prone to hacking or trafficking than other social media platforms, or that the app is used ‘extensively’ by hackers or traffickers.”

An article in Wired analyzing TikTok largely echoed the same findings as the article from Forbes, but it also raised another interesting philosophical question: is banning TikTok really a good idea?

“Outlawing TikTok would also mean the US would be participating in the same Chinese-style internet sovereignty tactics it has long criticized, and it’s not clear where the line might be drawn,” wrote Louise Matsakis in Wired. “And then there are the worrisome implications of shutting down a platform tens of millions of Americans use for free expression, especially just months before a presidential election.”

Should federal employees be banned from using TikTok on government devices? Feel free to provide your analysis in the comments below.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He enjoys writing about current topics that affect the federal workforce.