New York City becomes the latest government to issue new rules banning TikTok, a measure meant to ward off potential security threats from China.
The Verge reported the new ban, which is effective immediately and instructs agencies to delete the app from city-owned hardware within 30 days. NYC Cyber Command, which focuses on cyber threats for the NYC Office of Technology and Innovation, recommended the ban following a security review.
The state of New York also issued its own ban against TikTok on government devices in 2020. Many other states have issued their own bans in recent years, including New Jersey, Ohio, Texas and Georgia.
The U.S. House of Representatives banned the use of TikTok on government devices in December. Earlier this year, the Biden administration escalated its own pressure campaign against the app in an effort to force TikTok to part ways with its Chinese ownership.
In March, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before Congress, enduring five hours of questioning from lawmakers over concerns that China might leverage the app to compromise national security. TikTok is owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, setting it apart from other major social media companies based in the U.S.
“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew said in his opening statements.
In May, Montana Governor Greg Gianforte signed a law that bans TikTok in the state, effective starting in 2024. Unlike other state-level action, the ban is not limited to government-issued devices and would also limit normal users’ access to the popular app.
TikTok pushed back with a lawsuit aiming to keep the app available to Montanans. This month, tech industry groups NetChoice and Chamber of Progress backed TikTok’s lawsuit to block the ban, arguing that “Montana’s effort to cut Montanans off from the global network of TikTok users ignores and undermines the structure, design, and purpose of the internet.”
TikTok is also funding a separate lawsuit by creators who oppose the Montana ban, though the company wasn’t initially open about its involvement.
The bans in the U.S. and elsewhere cite nonspecific security concerns over TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance. While there is no evidence to date that Beijing has leveraged the wildly popular social app for spying, that threat isn’t out of the question.
China exerts great influence on private companies operating there. The government has been known to take a stake in private companies and shape their boards in order to influence decision making. And China has come out strongly against a potential forced sale of the company — an event that the Chinese government would be within its rights to block, given changes to export rules in late 2020.
While TikTok has gone on a public relations charm offensive in the U.S. and made changes to the way its stores user data, the company is plagued by its own past mistakes.
Last year, TikTok confirmed reporting that ByteDance employees tracked journalists’ IP addresses through the app in a scheme to crack down on internal leaks. Four ByteDance employees were fired, but the incident is a lingering black eye for a company eager to build trust with regulators abroad.
Still, those missteps and TikTok’s Chinese ownership don’t amount to a smoking gun. China has plenty of other paths toward spying on Americans and could potentially obtain similar social media data, including deep banks of location information, from shady brokers that trade in app data. And whether it makes the TikTok threat look better or worse, Chinese hackers aren’t hurting for access — they apparently exploited vulnerabilities in Microsoft’s cloud email service earlier this year to compromise a swath of U.S. government accounts.