The US has had a rocky relationship with TikTok and its parent company ByteDance, which is headquartered in Beijing.
In 2020, former president Donald Trump proposed ByteDance sell parts of its company to Microsoft. If an American company controlled TikTok, it was presumed the app would be less of a security concern for the US and other countries.
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By late last year, the US Congress approved a motion to ban TikTok on all federal government-issued devices. On Monday, the White House ordered all federal employees to have the app removed in the next 30 days. A day later, the European Parliament ordered members from all three of its institutions to delete the app from government devices — and urged members to delete it from their personal devices, too.
Shortly after that decision, Canada’s chief information officer ordered government-issued devices to be free of TikTok, a conclusion supported by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
More than half of US states have also banned or partially banned TikTok from state-issued government devices. In some states, the governors are eager to propose a nationwide ban on the app. Some public, state-funded universities have also banned the app from being used on university networks. Here’s why all those bans are being enforced.
These are the countries that have banned TikTok because they believe the app poses a national security threat. There are other countries that banned the app years ago but cite shielding citizens from viewing inappropriate content as their reasoning for the ban.
- The United States and more than half of its state governments.
- Canada and its provinces.
- The European Union’s governing bodies.
- New Zealand.
- The United Kingdom.
- Any account and profile information (name, age, username, phone number, profile image, email, and password).
- Any user-generated content uploaded to the app (audio recording, photos, comments, and videos).
- Direct messages.
- Any information used to purchase something through the app (card numbers, names, information from third-party payment apps, billing, and shipping address).
Some of TikTok’s information-gathering methods can be circumvented by taking steps like denying the app access to your contacts. But much of TikTok’s information gathering is automatic and cannot be stopped by the user. For instance, you must share:
- Your device information (IP address, mobile carrier, and network type).
- Your location.
- Device metadata (describes how, when, and where your user-generated content was created).
Some governments are concerned there could be big problems if adversaries get hold of user data. It can be especially concerning if government officials with clearance to sensitive and classified information give away their personal data — and that’s why the ban on federal government-issued devices is being enforced.
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Mona Fortier, president of Canada’s Treasury Board, told the BBC that the ban is a proactive measure to keep national secrets secure.
“On a mobile device, TikTok’s data collection methods provide considerable access to the contents of the phone,” she said. “While the risks of using this application are clear, we have no evidence at this point that government information has been compromised.”
The European Commission said it’s banning the app to ensure that no data from members can be used against them in a possible cybersecurity attack.
Chris DeRusha, the federal chief information security officer, told the Associated Press that the ban is a step in the government’s commitment to “securing our digital infrastructure and protecting the American people’s security and privacy.”
Following each government ban, TikTok has claimed the bans are unfounded, unfair, and implemented without evidence that the app poses a security concern.
After the Canadian government ban, a spokesperson for TikTok told the BBC that the app’s ban blocks Canadian officials from reaching people on a public platform. The spokesperson said no one from the Canadian government met with the company to discuss a compromise, and that the company is disappointed in the Canadian government’s decision.
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TikTok had a similarly disapproving reaction to the European ban. The company said denying users access to government officials is a “self-defeating step”.
After the U.S. announced its TikTok ban, TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said the US’s decision to ban the app without consulting the company prompted its allies to take the same steps. She said the company is disappointed in the United States’ decision.
Following the U.K. government ban, TikTok remains adamant that the government bans are based in geopolitical motivations, and insists that the app does not pose any significant threats.
More recently, the Biden administration has called on Chinese TikTok shareholders to divest their stakes in the app or risk a total ban on the app in the U.S. The recent threats echo the ones made by former President Trump in 2020. However, the former president couldn’t follow through with the nationwide ban, as the move was blocked by US courts.
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And the current president may face a similar fate. To ban TikTok on every American device, the White House will likely have to face a number of legal and political hurdles, since the administration has yet to define what national security risks the app poses. But what’s different this time is that there are many U.S. lawmakers that have proposed White House-supported legislation to ban any foreign-created tech if it threatens national security.