GOP governors order TikTok bans amid security concerns

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) called on state agencies to ban officers and employees from using TikTok on government-issued devices.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during an election night party Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in McAllen, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Republican governors in at least four states are taking steps to ban the use of TikTok, a popular Chinese-owned video-sharing app, on state-owned networks and devices.

The crackdown comes in reaction to growing concerns about cyber vulnerabilities and possible interference from the Chinese government. It mirrors action taken in 2020 by Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R).

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Wednesday became the latest to order a TikTok stand down, calling on state agencies to ban officers and employees from using TikTok on government-issued devices.

“TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices — including when, where, and how they conduct internet activity — and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government,” Abbott wrote in a letter to state agency heads.

On Tuesday, outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) issued an emergency cybersecurity directive that prohibits the use of TikTok, AliPay, WeChat and other “Chinese and Russian-influenced” vendors and products.

Hogan said in a statement that Maryland had already taken “bold and decisive actions” regarding cybersecurity threats, and that this emergency directive will “further protect our systems.”

Hogan’s directive gives executive branch agencies 14 days to remove the banned hardware and software from state networks. It also requires agencies to take steps to ensure the products are not installed in the future on state-owned or managed systems or devices.

In a similar move this week, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) sent a letter to the director of the state’s Department of Administration requesting that TikTok be removed and blocked from all state-managed devices. A spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Administration confirmed that her agency has already blocked TikTok on the state’s network.

“In the upcoming weeks, Admin will also install security software on each Admin-managed device to block access to TikTok when on non-state cellular or Wi-Fi networks,” Brooke Bailey, the spokesperson, said in an email Wednesday.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) signed an executive order late last month that bars state agencies, employees and contractors from using TikTok on state-owned devices. Noem’s order prohibits TikTok from being downloaded or used on state-owned or leased devices that can be connected to the internet.

“South Dakota will have no part in the intelligence gathering operations of nations who hate us,” Noem said in a statement.

TikTok spokesman Jamal Brown said in an email Wednesday that the bans “are largely fueled by misinformation about our company.”

“We are always happy to meet with state policymakers to discuss our privacy and security practices,” Brown said. “We are disappointed that the many state agencies, offices, and universities that have been using TikTok to build communities and connect with constituents will no longer have access to our platform.”

TikTok, which is estimated to have at least 85 million U.S. users, has previously said that it is not influenced by the Chinese government and that its U.S. user data is stored in the United States with backup data held in data centers in Singapore.

Still, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned members of Congress last month of “national security concerns” regarding TikTok, which is owned by ByteDance.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) last month called for a federal ban on TikTok and other Chinese-owned social media companies from operating in the U.S.

“Congress needs to act against the TikTok threat before it’s too late,” the Republican elected officials wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

This week, Gallagher and other Republican members of Congress from Wisconsin sent Gov. Tony Evers (D) a letter urging him to ban TikTok from state government devices. They called it a “nefarious Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spyware that surveils American citizens, promotes CCP propaganda, and allows the CCP to censor and control Americans’ news and content.”

Evers’s office did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson told the Associated Press that the governor’s office takes cyber threats seriously.

“We will continue to defer to the judgment and advice of law enforcement, cybersecurity, and counterintelligence experts regarding this and other evolving cybersecurity issues,” said Britt Cudaback, the governor’s spokesperson.

Alex Alben, a former Washington State chief privacy officer who teaches at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law, acknowledged the growing concern over TikTok’s Chinese ownership and security for U.S. users, “even though no specific cases have emerged in public.”

Alben said the U.S. has been trying to negotiate with ByteDance over the creation of a “Chinese Wall” to ensure data collected from U.S. users can’t be accessed in China. He said the recent actions by Republican governors and members of Congress could be viewed as an effort to “ramp up the pressure to get a deal done or to keep the issue in the spotlight.”

Separately, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita (R) on Wednesday announced two lawsuits against TikTok. One alleges the company deceives consumers into trusting their information is safe from the Chinese government. The second complaint accuses TikTok of luring children onto its platform with false representations that the site is safe and appropriate for 13- to 17-year-olds.

“The TikTok app is a malicious and menacing threat unleashed on unsuspecting Indiana consumers by a Chinese company that knows full well the harms it inflicts on users,” Rokita said in a statement announcing the lawsuits.

The lawsuits are likely the first by a U.S. state against TikTok.