Agencies play catch-up over security concerns with TikTok

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Lawmakers scored another win in their fight against TikTok after the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) barred its employees from using the megapopular video app.

But the latest episode also highlighted frustration that various government agencies have been slow to recognize the potential threat from TikTok — and how difficult it can be to manage employees’ personal social media presences.

The TSA move came after criticism from Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who along with other China hawks have raised concerns about government employees using the app, which they claim could allow China to access sensitive information about people in the U.S.

“Recently, both the U.S. military and the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the TSA, detailed social media policies and guidelines as it relates to use of the China-owned app TikTok due to security and privacy concerns,” Schumer wrote in a Sunday letter to TSA Administrator David Pekoske. 

“Despite these restrictions, including at TSA’s parent DHS, your agency continues to utilize TikTok to communicate with the American public in an official capacity,” the Democratic leader added. 

The TSA partially disputed Schumer’s account, highlighting the fact that a “small number” of employees used their “personal devices” to create TikTok for the agency’s social media presence. 

“But that practice has since been discontinued,” a TSA spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill. 

Over the past several months, agencies that deal with national security and intelligence issues have completely banned their employees from using TikTok on any government-issued devices. The bans have come as a U.S. government committee conducts a national security probe into TikTok, which is owned by Chinese internet company ByteDance. 

“The Department of Homeland Security does not approve of the download or use of the TikTok app on DHS-issued mobile devices,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill on Monday. 

But enforcement has been spotty and government employees, particularly military service members, have continued to inundate the app with videos posted from their personal devices, which is not technically a violation of any rules. 

The Department of Defense in a December guidance said TikTok has potential “security risks associated with its use” and encouraged employees to uninstall the app. But the Pentagon does not institute sweeping bans on social media platforms, the Pentagon said, leaving it up to the various military branches to draw up their own guidance. 

After facing pressure from lawmakers, for instance, the Army banned TikTok last December. “It is considered a cyber threat,” an Army spokeswoman said at the time. “We do not allow it on government phones.”

But soldiers are continuing to flood the app with videos from their personal accounts, often depicting themselves discussing their service while wearing uniform. The TikTok hashtag #army has amassed more than 14 billion views. 

The Marine Corps also recently blocked TikTok from government-issued mobile devices, a spokesman said, a decision that he called “consistent with our efforts to proactively address existing and emerging threats as we secure and defend our network.”

Meanwhile, Marines are completely within their rights to use the controversial app on their personal phones. The TikTok hashtags #marine, #marines and #marinecorps, which are flooded with footage of Marines in uniform and sometimes on base, have attracted more than 550 million views overall.  

Experts have pointed out there is no broad, general guidance from the Trump administration about how government employees should handle foreign-owned apps like TikTok, particularly because it’s an emerging issue.

“I would like to see some sort of top-down strategy for US government employees to deal with the new digital surveillance environment,” Kara Frederick, a fellow with the Center for a New American Security, told The Hill. 

Geoffrey Gertz, a fellow with the Brookings Institution, said there hasn’t been “very clear guidance from the administration that would go out to all agencies on this.” 

TikTok is the first Chinese-owned social media app to make major inroads in Western markets, attracting inevitable suspicion and anger from lawmakers and regulators as its popularity soars amid broader economic tension between China and the U.S. The app has been downloaded more than 123 million times in the U.S. and remains one of the most-downloaded apps on Apple’s App Store and Google Play, even as lawmakers like Schumer point out Chinese companies are required by law to help the Chinese government with intelligence work. 

There is so far no public evidence to show that the Chinese government has any access to the data collected from U.S. users by the TikTok app. And TikTok has continually insisted that it does not cooperate with the Chinese government, pointing out that it stores data on Americans in the U.S. with a backup in Singapore. TikTok previously said it has no “higher priority than ensuring Congress Members’ questions are addressed fully and transparently.” 

Gertz said he thinks there’s little TikTok can likely do to assuage the national security concerns from lawmakers including Schumer and Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).

Gertz said he believes “Chuck Schumer wanting to raise these issues” is likely “part of a broader plank in U.S.-China competition.” 

“Whatever TikTok says, whatever promises they make, are never really going to be enough for people who view this as part of the bigger U.S.-China conflict,” Gertz said. 

TikTok’s influence is only continuing to expand in the U.S., where mostly young people are using the app to make jokes and memes, spread political messages and catapult themselves into internet fame, amassing millions of followers and billions of views on their videos.

How to address that is a difficult question for the government.

Frederick said she’s concerned about the national security implications of TikTok, but she doesn’t think it would be “appropriate” for the government to tell federal workers what to do on their personal cell phones. 

“Right now, you just have to keep government devices from being vulnerable and try to impress upon federal employees the national security importance of what’s happening and what can happen,” she said.

Tags Charles Schumer Chuck Schumer Josh Hawley Marco Rubio Tom Cotton
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