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White House gives agencies just one month to comply with TikTok ban on federal devices

By Sarah May
|
February 28, 2023

In a guidance memorandum issued by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on Monday, the White House declared that federal agencies have a period of 30 days to make certain that the Chinese social media app TikTok is not installed on any of their systems or devices, as CNBC reports.

The directive comes after Congress voted in December to prohibit federal workers from using the app on government-issued devices and provided the Biden administration with a 60-day period in which to promulgate rules governing implementation of the ban.

Guidance issued

In the guidance issued by OMB Director Shalanda Young, agencies must also now alter their information technology contracts to require vendors to eradicate TikTok on systems and devices in a broader push to ensure the safety of critical data.

As Chris DeRusha, federal chief information security officer explained, “this guidance is part of the administration's ongoing commitment to securing our digital infrastructure and protecting the American people's security and privacy.”

Notably, the banning of TikTok on federally owned devices is inapplicable in cases where law enforcement, national security, or related research activities are involved, but it will now be necessary for the leadership of any agency utilizing that exception to approve the app's use in each such instance.

According to Monday's memo, agencies have 90 days in which to contractually address TikTok use by any of their IT vendors, and within 120 days, the prohibition on TikTok must be included in any new IT vendor solicitations.

Bipartisan ban

As CNBC noted separately late last year, Congress passed the federal device ban on TikTok in December as part of a bipartisan spending bill that was ultimately signed into law by President Joe Biden.

As the outlet noted at the time, both Republican and Democratic legislators have expressed concerns over TikTok and the surveillance potential it affords the Chinese government.

When the ban was passed last year, a spokesperson for the company said, “We're disappointed that Congress has moved to ban TikTok on government devices – a political gesture that will do nothing to advance national security interests....”

Though the ban was meant to be implemented by late February, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) took steps in late January to follow up with the administration, decrying what he said was the absence of “any signs of progress” on the issuance of guidance, a nudge that perhaps yielded Monday's memo.

Broader prohibitions eyed

In late January, Hawley – in the wake of his successful advocacy of the “No TikTok on Government Devices Act” – proposed a wider ban of the Chinese app, which would prohibit it from being downloaded on any U.S. device and also halt further commercial activity with ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok.

In explaining the rationale for the move, Hawley said, “TikTok poses a threat to all Americans who have the app on their devices. It opens the door for the Chinese Communist Party to access Americans' personal information, keystrokes, and location through aggressive data harvesting.”

“Banning it on government devices was a step in the right direction, but now is the time to ban it nationwide to protect the American people,” Hawley added.

Introducing a companion bill in the House of Representatives, Rep. Ken Buck (CO-04) declared, “TikTok is a clear threat to our privacy and national security. Not only is TikTok directly associated with the Chinese Communist Party, but it has been used to spy on Americans and gain an alarming level of access to users' phones. This should concern every citizen who values their privacy, security, and personal information.”

Not everyone on board

Though the TikTok ban for government-owned devices passed in bipartisan fashion, the idea of a more sweeping ban that would cover the entire country has drawn criticism in recent days, including from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as The Hill notes.

In response to a House bill called the Deterring America's Technological Adversaries Act, proposed by Republican Rep. Michael McCaul (TX-10), the ACLU contends that such a far-reaching ban would constitute a violation of “the First Amendment rights of millions of Americans who use the app to communicate and express themselves daily.”

“Should the bill move to a vote, we urge you to vote 'no,'” the ACLU said in a letter on the matter that was also addressed to Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-05), who sits with McCaul on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “In a purported attempt to protect the data of U.S. persons from Chinese government acquisition, this legislation will instead limit Americans' political discussion, artistic expression, free exchange of ideas – and even prevent people from posting cute animal videos and memes.”

Given the massive popularity of TikTok in the United States as well as growing concerns about the risks posed not just by Chinese government access to user data, but also by suggestions from tech experts that the site is strategically manipulated to push potentially harmful content to American youth, it seems clear that the debate over the app's future in the U.S. is nowhere near finished.