Senators Propose Banning TikTok App

By Victor Westerkamp

Two senators have introduced a bill to ban the TikTok app from the work phones of all federal employees, citing security concerns about the Chinese-owned company.

“TikTok is owned by a Chinese company that includes Chinese Communist Party members on its board, and it is required by law to share user data with Beijing,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) who introduced the No TikTok on Government Devices Act (pdf) together with Rick Scott (R-Fla.) on Thursday.

TikTok, which is developed by China-based ByteDance Technology, is a video-editing app that is very popular among American teenagers but which shares the data of its users, like geographic locations and contact details, with China, the lawmakers say.

TikTok application
The logo of the TikTok app on a phone screen in this picture illustration taken on Feb. 21, 2019. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

“As many of our federal agencies have already recognized, TikTok is a major security risk to the United States, and it has no place on government devices,” Hawley said, referring to similar previous bans on TikTok that are implemented by federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the Department of Defense, and Transportation Security Administration.

“For federal employees, it really is a no-brainer. It’s a major security risk … do we really want Beijing having geolocation data of all federal employees? Do we really want them having their keystrokes,” Hawley told reporters last week.

Representatives of ByteDance Technology insist the concerns are “unfounded.”

“While we think the concerns are unfounded, we understand them and are continuing to further strengthen our safeguards while increasing our dialogue with lawmakers to help explain our policies,” a ByteDance spokesman said, according to Reuters.

Hawley said the proposed ban applies to government-issued devices only but his comments added to growing tensions between Washington and Beijing over trade and technology transfers.

“TikTok is scooping up immense amounts of data and they are sharing it with Beijing; they are required to,” Hawley told reporters after a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on big tech’s connections to China.

In the recent past, several U.S. agencies that deal with national security and intelligence issues have banned employees from using the app, which has been rapidly growing in popularity among U.S. teenagers and allows users to create short videos.

In November, the U.S. government launched a national security review of ByteDance Technology’s $1 billion acquisition of U.S. social media app Musical.ly.

TikTok has previously said U.S. user data is stored in the United States and that China does not have jurisdiction over content that is not in China.

The senator, however, noted that ByteDance is governed by Chinese laws.

Reuters contributed to this report.