The U.S. Senate unanimously voted Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022, to ban TikTok from federal phones over concerns about security threats from China. The bill became law after senators attached it to a massive omnibus bill for funding the government in December of last year. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate late Wednesday unanimously passed a bill to ban federal employees from downloading TikTok on their work phones.
Critics of TikTok, a widely popular social media platform, say the app creates national security concerns because of its ability to track users’ data — and because the Chinese government can compel that data from the Chinese company that developed and owns TikTok, ByteDance.
“It is essentially an evidence-gathering data, data-gathering machine that runs on your phone,” U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican who sponsored the bill, said on the Senate floor Thursday.
The app has access to users’ location, calendar, notebooks, and other features on their phones, Hawley said. Chinese law dictates that the ByteDance must hand over that data to the Chinese Communist Party upon request, he added.
Representatives for ByteDance did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Marc Berkman, the executive director for consumer watchdog group the Organization for Social Media Safety, said in a Thursday interview that the Chinese ownership of TikTok poses “an ongoing national security concern,” in addition to basic safety concerns inherent in all social media platforms.
Governors rush to issue bans
If passed in the House and signed by President Joe Biden, the Hawley bill would have the same effect on federal employees that several Republican governors have put in place for their states’ workers.
Florida and Nebraska’s governors instated bans on state devices in 2020.
But only those two had any restrictions until Nov. 29, when South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem announced a ban on the app on state employee devices in the Mount Rushmore State and an avalanche of at least a dozen more states followed.
In a Wall Street Journal column earlier this month, Noem criticized Biden for not advancing a national ban and called on other governors to use her executive order as an example.
“South Dakota is showing the nation how to create a state-led response to threats from communist China,” she wrote. “We are taking the lead on preventing Beijing from accessing the private data of our citizens and throttling our food supply. South Dakota will continue to defend its citizens. I encourage other states to follow our lead. America’s security depends on it.”
The states that have announced bans in the past two weeks include Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Maryland, New Hampshire and Tennessee.
Though the state-level bans have all been enacted by GOP governors, there is a bipartisan effort in Congress to go even further, banning the app in the United States entirely. That measure was introduced Tuesday by Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin and Democratic U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois.
“Everyone agrees they’re a privacy danger to America, to our national security,” Rubio said in a cable news appearance Wednesday night. “We shouldn’t have the Communist Party of China having access to a treasure trove of American data that they can use to try to influence and divide us at the same time they collect valuable information.”
Hawley’s bill also passed the Senate in 2020, but the House did not vote on it and it did not become law.
In her weekly press conference Thursday, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was supportive but noncommittal about that chamber passing the bill in the few days left in this year’s session.
Pelosi said she hadn’t closely analyzed the bill but understood it did not contain major concerns for U.S. intelligence agencies.
“We’re checking with the administration — just in terms of language, not in terms of being opposed to the idea, but just being specific,” she said. “It’s very, very important.”
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to comment on the administration’s position at her Thursday press briefing, saying the White House would wait for Congress to act.
— Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.
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