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Helsinki, Finland, May 4, 2019: Tik Tok application icon on Apple iPhone X screen close-up. Tik Tok icon. tik tok application. Tiktok Social media network. Social media icon

US senators seek to ban use of TikTok on government-issued phones

Image credit: Bigtunaonline | Dreamstime

Two Republican senators have introduced a bill aimed at banning federal employees from using Chinese video-sharing app TikTok on their government-issued phones, amid growing security concerns regarding the collection and sharing of data gathered from US users with China’s government.

The bill, proposed by senators Josh Hawley and Rick Scott, comes as several US agencies that deal with national security and intelligence issues – including the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security – have banned employees from using the TikTok app. The bill is also the latest attempt to rein in technology companies by Hawley, who has repeatedly clashed with big tech companies.

“TikTok is owned by a Chinese company that includes Chinese Communist Party members on its board and it is required by law to share user data with Beijing,” Hawley stated. “As many of our federal agencies have already recognised, TikTok is a major security risk to the United States and it has no place on government devices.”

The app has been rapidly growing in popularity among US teenagers and allows users to create short lip-syncs, comedic and talent videos. Around 60 per cent of TikTok’s 26.5 million monthly active users in the US are aged 16 to 24, the company said last year.

In November 2019, the US government launched a national security review of TikTok's Beijing-based owner, ByteDance, as it sought to acquire US social media app Musical.ly for $1bn (£790bn). The following month, ByteDance was sued for allegedly violating US child privacy laws by collecting the personal data of underage users through the acquisition of another app.

A TikTok spokesman said the senators’ concerns were unfounded and that the company is increasing its dialogue with lawmakers to explain its policies. He added the company has announced plans to open a transparency centre in Los Angeles, which will give third-party experts insight into the company’s efforts surrounding data privacy, security and moderation practices.

TikTok has been on the defensive as lawmakers and law enforcement agencies take a closer look at its data security practices amid concerns that it engages in censorship at the behest of the Chinese government. The company previously said US user data is stored in the US, adding that China does not have jurisdiction over content that is not in China.

In November 2019, Hawley unveiled a bill that would bar companies from China, Russia or any other countries that present national security concerns to the US from transferring American citizens’ data back within their borders, where it could then be used to spy on the US.

The bill also prevented companies from collecting data that is not necessary to the operation of their business, such as phone contacts or location, particularly in the case of TikTok.

Last month, TikTok added safety features, including screen time management prompts and parental control over the content their children are viewing. Meanwhile, earlier this year, Israeli cyber-security company Check Point discovered security flaws in the wildly popular video-sharing app relating to its handling of users’ phone numbers.

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