This article has been updated to reflect that legislation banning the use of TikTok on government devices has passed the Senate.
Federal employees will still be able to use TikTok, for now at least, thanks to failed efforts by Republicans to insert a measure into the 2023 National Defense and Authorization Act (NDAA) to ban federal employees from using the app on government issued mobile devices.
Roll Call reported last week that the provision would not be in the NDAA after Congressman Ken Buck (R-CO) had made efforts to include it. According to Roll Call, “…the new draft text of the defense policy bill released late Tuesday doesn’t include such a provision. The measure’s 61 straight years of enactment have made it a magnet for provisions that may not be related to defense.”
Any efforts to ban TikTok now will have to be done through other legislative means.
Update: The Senate passed legislation on Wednesday, December 14, 2022 banning TikTok on government devices. The bill that was passed was Senator Josh Hawley’s (R-MO) No TikTok on Government Devices Act (S. 1143) which would prevent federal employees from downloading or using TikTok on phones, tablets, and computers issued by the US government or government corporations.
The bill will now go to the House for consideration. However, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said on Thursday she would not commit to putting the bill on the House schedule before the current session ends.
Past Efforts to Ban TikTok for Federal Employees
Congressman Ken Buck (R-CO) and Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) have been among the lawmakers who have been pushing for some time now to ban TikTok for federal employees.
Buck introduced legislation in 2020 to nix the application on government devices. He said in a press release issued at the time the bill was introduced, “The No TikTok on Government Devices Act is in the best interest of our national security. Chinese-owned apps are required to report user data to the Chinese Communist Party, that is why we cannot trust TikTok with the sensitive data that exists on U.S. government devices. It is well past time to acknowledge the serious cybersecurity threat that TikTok poses and enact a federal government-wide ban on the Chinese app.”
Hawley has introduced the legislation in the Senate as well. He said about the program, “TikTok is a Trojan Horse for the Chinese Communist Party that has no place on government devices—or any American devices, for that matter.”
State Efforts to Ban TikTok
A number of states are taking action against the social media company. Tennessee is banning TikTok on all state issued devices. Other states taking action against include Nebraska, South Dakota, Maryland, Texas, South Carolina, and Oklahoma. Virginia may soon do the same via legislation that is being introduced to ban it.
Recent Effort to Ban TikTok Nationwide
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has been fighting the use of TikTok as well for national security reasons, calling for an establishment of “a framework of standards that must be met before a high-risk, foreign-based app is allowed to operate on American telecommunications networks and devices.”
He said last year, “The Biden Administration can no longer pretend that TikTok is not beholden to the Chinese Communist Party. Even before today, it was clear that TikTok represented a serious threat to personal privacy and U.S. national security. Beijing’s aggressiveness makes clear that the regime sees TikTok as an extension of the party-state, and the U.S. needs to treat it that way.”
More recently, Rubio and Congressman Mike Gallagher (R-WI) called in an editorial in the Washington Post for a nationwide ban of TikTok. Among the concerns they cited were the app’s ability to “track cellphone users’ locations and collect internet-browsing data — even when users are visiting unrelated websites” and the platform’s ability to influence “which issues Americans learn about, what information they consider accurate, and what conclusions they draw from world events” because of the growing number of people who get their news from applications like TikTok.
The lawmakers wrote, “Unless TikTok and its algorithm can be separated from Beijing, the app’s use in the United States will continue to jeopardize our country’s safety and pave the way for a Chinese-influenced tech landscape here…. This is why we’re introducing legislation which would ban TikTok and other social media companies that are effectively controlled by the CCP from operating in the United States….”
TikTok’s Tracking Features
Rubio and Gallagher may be onto something. According to security and privacy researcher Felix Krause, TikTok can monitor all of a user’s keyboard inputs when using the app’s built in browser.
“When you open any link on the TikTok iOS app, it’s opened inside their in-app browser. While you are interacting with the website, TikTok subscribes to all keyboard inputs (including passwords, credit card information, etc.) and every tap on the screen, like which buttons and links you click,” wrote Krause.
He went on to say that the company claims to not use these features. “TikTok injects code into third party websites through their in-app browsers that behaves like a keylogger. However claims it’s not being used,” wrote Krause.
I guess if you trust the company, then you will be safe using the app. I personally am not sure I’d be willing to take their word for it, but fortunately, I do not use TikTok.