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Ticktock, TikTok: Government agencies are on the clock to purge the app from all devices

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In this photo illustration, the TikTok app logo is displayed on an iPhone on February 28, 2023 in London, England.

"If you talk to some national security experts, they'll tell you the way to think about it is having 100 million little cameras that could be accessed by the Communist Party, running around America," said Jessica Melugin from the Competitive Enterprise Institute about having TikTok on cell phones. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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Federal agencies now have 30 days to delete the social video app TikTok from all government phones, tablets and computers. Additionally, they have 90 days to tell contractors they work with that they can no longer access the platform either if they want to keep their contracts.

Back in December, Congress passed a law banning the app — which is owned by a Chinese-based company — from government devices.

Certain agencies, including the White House, Department of State and the Department of Defense had already banned their employees from using TikTok. More than half of state governments have, too. And this week, Canada and the EU made similar moves. 

What is the risk with using the famous clock app?

TikTok, like most social media apps, collects tons of data about its users including, “geolocation, face or voice prints,” according to Caitlin Chin at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It can identify who TikTok users contact, what they say, where they are at a given time,” she added.

Chin explains the issue with TikTok, in particular, is its connection to China.

“The fear is that the Chinese government can potentially access this information,” she said.

The reality of that security risk is still a bit unknown, per Jessica Melugin from the Center for Technology and Innovation at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

“The U.S. users who enjoy TikTok think, ‘Who cares if the Chinese government knows what dance I’m doing?'” she said. “But if you talk to some national security experts, they’ll tell you the way to think about it is having 100 million little cameras that could be accessed by the Communist Party, running around America.”

Melugin said when government employees are carrying around those little cameras, “They might be providing data of where military personnel are, the location data, or there might be images of things that the U.S. military would rather not have the Chinese government see.”

Tik Tok, through its head of public policy for the Americas, Michael Beckerman, said those concerns are unfounded.

“Not based on facts or evidence, purely political posturing,” Beckerman said. “If Congress has concerns about TikTok, the best thing they can do is ask the administration to wrap up their national security review.” (Which President Biden ordered well over a year ago.)

Juliette Kayyem at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government said there is a symbolic aspect to the TikTok ban.

“That is undeniably what’s animating it,” she said. “Because most technologists will say, ‘We have so much crap on our phones, a foreign intelligence agency, if it’s smart, will be able to figure out what it wants to get from us.'”

Whether or not people have TikTok installed, at the same time, “Why create an easy vulnerability for the Chinese? Let’s just make it a little bit harder for them,” Kayyem said.

And really, she said, how many government employees need TikTok on their work phone, anyway.

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