TikTok app logo crossed out with red ban sign showing TikTok ban on U.S. government devices

TikTok Ban Requires Removal of the App From Government Devices by End of March

On the last day of February, the White House sent out an order to federal agencies announcing that TikTok must be removed from government devices within 30 days. The TikTok ban includes any app made by parent company Bytedance, though its other products are relatively rarely used outside of China.

The Office of Management and Budget has also announced that the ban extends to government contractors, though this aspect is being implemented over a longer period of time. Agencies must add language that forbids the use of the app over the next 90 days, and must cancel any contracts in which the partner is not able to stop using the app. In 120 days vendors that continue to use TikTok will no longer be able to solicit.

TikTok to be swept off federal government devices

The development is the culmination of a late December cybersecurity bill, one that enjoyed rare bipartisan support and a rapid trip through Congress. Over half of all US states have already issued some form of TikTok bans for government devices.

Lawmakers are concerned about both the possibility of sensitive information finding its way to servers in China (where the government would then have easy access to it), and the possibility of TikTok being used by the Chinese government as a propaganda channel. There have not been any clear incidents of this sort as of yet, but an internal leaker accused one of Bytedance’s now-retired apps (TopBuzz) of intentionally pushing CCP messages to foreign users.

The TikTok ban bill appeared to spark a number of similar pieces of legislation around the world. The EU and Canada have issued similar bans for government devices that are going active at about the same time, and Taiwan issued a ban on it from the entire public sector in December.

After making it through Trump administration threats of a total TikTok ban from US app stores, Bytedance appeared to have stabilized the situation as the Biden administration took over. But 2022 saw the company repeatedly take one step forward and two steps back. A partnership with Oracle and siloing of non-Chinese user data on servers in the US and Singapore appeared to cool off the calls for bans, but then a summer 2022 leak of internal documents revealed that engineers in China continued to have far more access to foreign user data than they were supposed to. TikTok then proposed a new US-based “Trust and Safety” team and the construction of new data centers in Europe, just as a scandal over employee tracking of journalists on the platform broke.

There is now solid bipartisan agreement in the US on bans that at least cover government devices; some politicians, such as Senators Michael Bennett (D-CO) and Josh Hawley (R-MO), are calling for a revival of the Trump-era ban proposal that would forbid it from Google and Apple’s app stores entirely.

Chris Vaughan, AVP – Technical Account Management at Tanium, expands on exactly what the perceived risks of continued TikTok access are to both government devices and the general population: “Chinese intelligence tactics are fueled by the sustained collection of user data such as commerce and purchasing information, combined with biometrics and activity tracking, feeds detailed intelligence to be used in operations with longer term objectives. Such data can deliver targeted, timely psychological operations against individuals or groups of citizens. We have seen this during election cycles and politically charged events in recent years. This move raises the question of  the extent to which Chinese influence is acceptable when it comes to national infrastructure and everyday life. Concerns have increased in the West in recent months and the use of Chinese surveillance technology has been restricted.”

“We have also seen reports of Chinese initiatives to influence politicians through lobbying and donations, as well as through the spread of disinformation through social media. We’ve previously seen Russia’s use of information operations during the 2016 US election and UK’s Brexit referendum. China’s focus meanwhile has been on the theft of intellectual property, but there are indications that the CCP may look to information and influence operations to advance its strategic goals. Such instances must be met head on by the US and other western political leaders, and this TikTok ban begins to reflect that realization,” noted Vaughan.

State and federal TikTok bans mean majority of US government entities can no longer access app

While the TikTok bans thus far largely focus on government devices, some of the state bans that have been enacted (such as the legislation in Alabama and Oklahoma) also require state schools to block the app from their campus networks and WiFi. The situation is a major reversal from where things stood in 2021, when the Biden administration appeared to be downplaying the app’s risks and framing it as a partisan issue that only Trump and aligned conservatives were fervently pursuing.

TikTok has an estimated 80 million users in the US, with well over half being under the age of 24. Very little of the user base is above the age of 45. In Canada, there are now over eight million users of the app and over half are under the age of 29. Regulatory scrutiny about what propaganda messages the Chinese government might push through it is relatively new; for years now, ever since it debuted as Musical.ly, the app has been primarily scrutinized over its use of targeted advertising with its young user base and its ability to filter harmful content out before it reaches these impressionable viewers. Pew polls have found that 67% of teenagers say they use the app, and 16% say that they use it all day long.

Few US government devices will be allowed to retain access after the TikTok ban activates, but there are a handful of exceptions for purposes such as law enforcement investigation and security research. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is scheduled to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in late March, the first time the head of the company has been subject to questioning by Congress.