In the last few months, there has been a growing focus on the security risks of TikTok, the video-based social media platform, which led Congress to ban the app from federal devices in late December 2022. This new federal regulation only impacts federal employees who may have a government-issued phone, tablet or computer by banning TikTok from federally-issued devices, but the change reflects growing concerns around the app and could have downstream effects.
The renewed concern around TikTok’s security risks has been prompted by testimony from FBI Director Chris Wray describing the FBI’s concerns around TikTok’s security. TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, which is subject to Chinese national security laws that require companies to share user data with the government. It is believed that the app can collect personal data from devices, and that data could be passed along to the Chinese government. The FBI has also expressed concern about the TikTok algorithm, which curates the videos that a user sees, and how it could be used to run influence campaigns among American users.
Since the congressional ban, more than half of states have made similar bans, and some cities, counties, and public universities have followed suit. The state bans vary in scope: some ban the app on state-run networks as well as devices, the departments subject to the ban vary, and some states banned other Chinese and Russian-owned apps in addition to TikTok. Like the federal ban, state TikTok bans only impact the use of TikTok on state-issued devices or networks, and do not have a direct impact on municipal employees. Nevertheless, these bans have caused many local governments to question the risks of TikTok, and some municipalities and counties have already proposed or issued bans on TikTok for government-owned devices.
While TikTok could pose a security risk, these bans have the downside of limiting governments’ abilities to reach a young audience that is active on TikTok. TikTok is used by more than one hundred million monthly active users in the United States, and can be a tool for government officials to counter mis- and disinformation while reaching younger people and those less engaged on other platforms. Several cities have active TikTok accounts which are used to highlight local businesses, parks and recreation, and events in the city. Others have used the platform to spread vital information about weather events and promote civic engagement.
TikTok should be one of many considerations for local governments when thinking about a cybersecurity and data privacy strategy. As local governments continue to integrate technology into their day-to-day operations, it is crucial to implement systems that will protect against cyber threats and keep sensitive data secure.
To learn more about how local leaders can take steps to ensure strong cybersecurity practices in their organizations, check out NLC’s report on What Cities Should Know About Cybersecurity.