Maryland and Texas public officials won’t be doing TikTok dances on government-owned phones anymore–if they ever did–thanks to Republican Governors Greg Abbott and outgoing Larry Hogan.

In what could spark a wave of states following suit, Hogan and Abbott have banned the usage of TikTok on state devices. They join a small but growing number of legislators who recognize that the super popular social media app poses significant privacy and security risks to regular Americans as well as social risks.

What happened

Maryland’s governor issued an emergency cybersecurity directive prohibiting the use of Chinese and Russian-influenced products and platforms. State agencies must reportedly remove products from state networks and implement restrictions to prevent future usage of the apps. 

This move ensures that platforms like TikTok, owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, cannot be used by state officials now and in the future. 

Given that the directive only applies to state agencies, this move is meant to send a signal. Private Maryland residents, such as myself, can still use the platform, but they should take Hogan’s actions and warnings seriously.

In a statement, Hogan noted:

There may be no greater threat to our personal safety and our national security than the cyber vulnerabilities that support our daily lives.

As the cyber capital of America, Maryland has taken bold and decisive actions to prepare for and address cybersecurity threats. To further protect our systems, we are issuing this emergency directive against foreign actors and organizations that seek to weaken and divide us.

Two days later, Governor Abbott banned TikTok from government-issued devices. Abbott went a step further by directing two agencies to develop a plan to address the use of TikTok on the personal devices of government employees. That directive could mean network-based restrictions that prevent access to TikTok while on agency property. Law enforcement can still use the app for their efforts though.

Abbott stated:

TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices … and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.

Hogan and Abbott are not the only lawmakers to raise alarm about TikTok or take it a step further. Fox News reports:

The Maryland directive comes a week after South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, also a Republican, banned state employees and contractors from accessing TikTok on state-owned devices, citing its ties to China. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, also a Republican, on Monday asked the state’s Department of Administration to ban TikTok from all state government devices it manages. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts blocked TikTok on state electronic devices in August 2020.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio first raised alarm about TikTok back in 2019.  Former President Trump unsuccessfully tried to ban it back in 2020.

Recently, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr has campaigned for the U.S. to ban TikTok  saying “I don’t believe there is a path forward for anything other than a ban.”

Republicans aren’t the only ones worried about TikTok. 

As Vox reports Virginia’s Democratic Senator Mark Warner, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, recently came out in support of Trump’s TikTok ban: 

As painful as it is for me to say, if Donald Trump was right and we could’ve taken action then, that’d have been a heck of a lot easier than trying to take action in November of 2022.

The sooner we bite the bullet, the better.

Why it matters

TikTok is popular and it’s addictive. Once used primarily for making music videos, now is a news source, a community, and even a search engine. What users find can be fun, funny, and interesting, but also disturbing and dangerous.

The social, emotional, educational and public safety impacts of the app are just a few major concerns as my colleagues Meaghan Mobbs and Patricia Patnode have written about here and here, respectively.

Privacy and national security concerns continue to be paramount. TikTok claims that U.S. data is not accessed by the Chinese government, but U.S. officials don’t believe it. Lawmakers worry about U.S. data flowing back to China. There is also the risk of a state actor using TikTok to covertly influence U.S. political processes.

TikTok claims that it can keep American users data away from it’s Chinese parent company, but recent reports indicate that ByteDance has a great deal of control over TikTok and its direction and that China has access to US data. BuzzFeed reports:

… leaked audio from more than 80 internal TikTok meetings, China-based employees of ByteDance have repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about US TikTok users — exactly the type of behavior that inspired former president Donald Trump to threaten to ban the app in the United States.

“Everything is seen in China,” said a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department in a September 2021 meeting. In another September meeting, a director referred to one Beijing-based engineer as a “Master Admin” who “has access to everything.”

Bottom Line

TikTok remains a significant privacy and security threat aside from the other issues it poses for children and teens. Parents and citizens need to exercise their best judgment over whether to download and use the app–or allow their children to.

Governors are not waiting for Washington to act though. They are attempting to restrict the usage of the app on government devices in moves that they hope will signal to residents that they should follow suit.

Limited government doesn’t mean there is no role for the government in limiting the activities of a private company, especially when it’s not a domestic company and when the risks are grave.