The United States has had a rocky relationship with TikTok and its parent company ByteDance, which is based in Beijing.
In 2020, former President Donald Trump proposed to ByteDance to sell parts of his company to Microsoft. If an American company controlled TikTok, the app was supposed to be less of a security concern for the US and other countries.
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Late last year, the US Congress passed a motion to ban TikTok on all federally issued devices. On Monday, the White House ordered all federal employees to remove the app within the next 30 days. A day later, the European Parliament ordered members of its three institutions to remove the app from government devices, and urged members to remove it from their personal devices as well.
Shortly after that decision, Canada’s chief information officer mandated that government-issued devices be free of TikTok, a conclusion endorsed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
More than half of US states have also banned or partially banned TikTok on state-issued government devices. In some states, governors are eager to propose a nationwide ban on the app. Some state-funded public universities have also banned the use of the app 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 threat to national security. There are other countries that banned the app years ago, but cite protecting citizens from viewing inappropriate content as the reason for the ban.
- The United States and more than half of its state governments.
- Canada and its provinces.
- The governing bodies of the European Union.
- New Zealand.
- The United Kingdom.
- Any account and profile information (name, age, username, phone number, profile picture, email, and password).
- Any user-generated content uploaded to the application (audio recording, photos, comments and videos).
- Direct messages.
- Any information used to purchase something through the application (card numbers, names, information from third-party payment applications, billing and shipping address).
Some of TikTok’s information collection methods can be circumvented by taking measures like denying the app access to your contacts. But much of TikTok’s information collection is automatic and cannot be stopped by the user. For example, you should share:
- Your device information (IP address, mobile operator and network type).
- Your location.
- Device metadata (describes how, when, and where the user-generated content was created).
Some governments worry that there could be big problems if adversaries get hold of user data. It can be especially concerning if government officials with authorization to access sensitive and classified information hand over your personal data, which is why the ban on federally issued devices applies.
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Mona Fortier, chairwoman of Canada’s Treasury Board, told the BBC that the ban is a proactive measure to keep national secrets safe.
“On a mobile device, TikTok’s data collection methods provide considerable access to content on the phone,” he said. “While the risks of using this app are clear, at this time we have no evidence that government information was compromised.”
The European Commission said it is banning the app to ensure that no member data could be used against them in a potential cybersecurity attack.
Chris DeRusha, the federal director of information security, told the Associated Press that the ban is a step in the administration’s commitment to “secure our digital infrastructure and protect the security and privacy of the American people.”
After every government ban, TikTok has claimed that the bans are unfounded, unfair, and implemented without evidence that the app poses a security issue.
After the Canadian government ban, a TikTok spokesperson told the BBC that the ban on the app prevents Canadian officials from reaching people on a public platform. The spokesperson said that no one from the Canadian government met with the company to discuss a compromise and that the company is disappointed with the Canadian government’s decision.
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TikTok had a similar disapproving reaction to the European ban. The company said that denying users access to government officials is a “counterproductive step.”
After the US announced the ban on TikTok, TikTok spokeswoman Brooke Oberwetter said the US decision to ban the app without consulting the company led its allies to take the same steps. She said the company is disappointed with the US decision.
Following the UK government ban, TikTok remains adamant that the government bans are based on geopolitical motivations and insists that the app does not pose any significant threat.
More recently, the Biden administration has called on TikTok’s Chinese shareholders to divest their stakes in the app or risk an outright ban on the app in the US. Recent threats echo those made by the former President Trump in 2020. However, the former President couldn’t go 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 all American devices, the White House will likely face a number of legal and political hurdles, as the administration has yet to define what national security risks the app poses. But what’s different this time is that there are many US lawmakers who have proposed White House-backed legislation to ban any foreign-created technology if it threatens national security.