February 3, 2023

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US Democrats’ stronghold Washington state mulling TikTok ban

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Washington state is considering moves to restrict the use of the Chinese-owned app for government business amid national security concerns.

The US state of Washington is considering banning the use of TikTok for government business, potentially extending a Republican-led campaign against the Chinese-owned app to one of the most liberal parts of the United States.

Washington state would become the first Democratic stronghold to ban TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, over data privacy and national security concerns if it prohibits the use of the app on government devices.

At least 19 states, including Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, New Hampshire, Maryland, North Dakota and Utah, have banned or restricted the use of the app on government devices over data privacy and national concerns.

All of those states have Republican governors, except for Louisiana, a conservative stronghold, which has only restricted use of the app on devices under the purview of the Secretary of State.

On Monday, Louisiana’s Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin called on Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards to ban the app on all state government devices.

The proposals in Washington state, where Democrats control the governorship and both branches of the state legislature, were revealed in emails Al Jazeera obtained after filing public records requests with all 50 US states and the District of Columbia.

In emails sent among the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, Stevens Fox, Washington state’s chief information security officer, said his state was considering prohibiting the use of TikTok.

“The State of Washington is considering whether to prohibit the use of TikTok for agency business. Has anyone performed a risk assessment on this application?” Fox said in the email dated December 9, which was obtained following a public records request with the state of Utah.

“A June thread by Michigan’s @Jack Harris supports TikTok prohibit [sic] due to the threat of data mining by international threat actors. I wanted to check if anyone has delved more deeply into the risks of using this application and the potential countermeasures”.

Ken Weeks, the chief information security officer for New Hampshire, replied in an email that he believed a ban would be “very reasonable”.

“I won’t suggest we went through a formal risk assessment regarding TikTok, but based on the links to [the] source material in the excerpt from another artifact I’ve been working the last couple days, we feel it is very reasonable to put this product on a prohibited list,” Weeks said. The scope of Washington state’s proposed ban — such as whether it would apply to all or only some government devices — is not clear.

Andrew Garber, a spokesperson for Washington Technology Solutions, confirmed that the state’s use of TikTok is under review.

“Washington, like many states, is reviewing the use of TikTok but has not reached any decision yet,” Garber told Al Jazeera.

Apart from the state-level push to restrict TikTok, separate bills to ban the app outright and prohibit its use on government devices are pending in the US Congress.

TikTok has faced growing scrutiny in the US since former President Donald Trump gave ByteDance 90 days to divest its US assets amid concerns sensitive user data could be accessed by the Chinese government.

US President Joe Biden replaced Trump’s executive orders with a broader executive order calling on officials to develop criteria for evaluating privacy and national security risks associated with foreign-owned apps.

TikTok has insisted it stores all personal data belonging to American users in the US with backups in Singapore, although it has acknowledged that some employees based in China have been able to access US data.

The social media platform has since sought to address data protection concerns by moving all American users’ data to US servers operated by Texas-based tech giant Oracle.

Jamal Brown, a spokesperson for TikTok, expressed disappointment over the moves to restrict the app.

“Millions of Americans rely on TikTok to grow their small businesses, reach new audiences, and make their livelihoods,” Brown told Al Jazeera.

“So it is disappointing that states and some federal officials are promoting falsehoods to ban the platform instead of advancing sound policies to promote US national security interests. We continue to stand ready to implement the solutions developed under the oversight of our country’s top national security agencies to further secure our platform here in the United States.”

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