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Chinese-owned TikTok banned from Utah government devices


The governor of Utah declared Monday that TikTok is prohibited on many state electronic devices.

Gov. Spencer Cox (R) issued the executive order Monday, banning many employees in the state’s executive branch from using the social media app on state-owned phones, tablets or computers. Exempt from the ban are schools of all levels, the attorney general’s office and the legislative and judicial branches.

Cox said he is uncomfortable with TikTok because it is owned by Beijing-based company ByteDance and he is distrustful of the company’s ties to the Chinese government.

As Washington wavers on TikTok, Beijing exerts control

“China’s access to data collected by TikTok presents a threat to our cybersecurity,” Cox said in a news release this week. “As a result, we’ve deleted our TikTok account and ordered the same on all state-owned devices. We must protect Utahns and make sure that the people of Utah can trust the state’s security systems.”

The complicated relationship between the U.S. government and China’s Communist Party is central to the past, present and future of an app that contains content as goofy or as serious as humans can be.

TikTok is a video-based social network with a powerful algorithm that provides a well of content tailored to the interests and habits of the user.

The app can harvest data from users and sell those personal details, a researcher told The Washington Post on Tuesday.

Cox joins several other governors over the past couple of weeks who have limited public-sector use of TikTok.

Maryland, South Carolina and South Dakota have banned TikTok from some government devices in the past week or so, according to the Associated Press. So did Texas. Nebraska blocked TikTok on government electronics in August 2020. Indiana sued TikTok last week, saying the app exposes children to harmful content.

The governors of all those states are Republican.

And other Republican-led states may follow, The Post has reported. Six members of Congress from Wisconsin, including Sen. Ron Johnson (R), called on their governor to ban the app. The Post reported that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is also concerned about state procurement of technology products and services such as TikTok because of links to “foreign countries of concern.”

Jamal Brown, a spokesman for TikTok, said Tuesday: “We’re disappointed that so many states are jumping on the bandwagon to enact policies based on unfounded, politically charged falsehoods about TikTok. It is unfortunate that the many state agencies, offices, and universities on TikTok in those states will no longer be able to use it to build communities and connect with constituents.”

The Post in October published a three-part series looking at the TikTok phenomenon and how the app has given two of the world’s most powerful countries another reason to fight.

How TikTok ate the internet

Data firms have found that the average American viewer watches TikTok for 80 minutes a day, The Post reported, which is more than the time spent on Facebook and Instagram combined.

TikTok is similar to many social media apps, privacy researcher Sameer Patil said Tuesday, aside from the international politics. “Their goal essentially is to serve you with target ads or targeted content to serve their business model,” said Patil, a University of Utah computing professor who specializes in user privacy online.

The difference, he said, is that TikTok is owned by a Chinese company — and that presents a jurisdiction issue. The best way to calm fears of American data being owned by the Chinese government is to make sure the data never leaves American soil, he said.

President Donald Trump in 2020 tried to rid the United States of TikTok but said he would relent if ByteDance sold to an American buyer. But, The Post reported, the Chinese government stepped in. Since then, ByteDance announced Project Texas, which it says is aimed at routing all American traffic on TikTok through data centers owned by American cloud-storage provider Oracle.

Follow The Washington Post on TikTok

TikTok doesn’t make its code publicly available, Patil said, so users just have to trust that the company is keeping its word.

As an exercise in class, Patil said he has his students read the privacy statements published by social media giants. “I just come away with students who are blown away,” he said.

Students are shocked at what these companies can harvest.

“You should just assume that everything is being collected and will be used in any way the company wants,” he said.

People are giving up not only their location, he said, but details with far-reaching possibilities.

Users who post videos of themselves on TikTok are giving away their image and voice, which can be used to make deepfake videos or fuel the progress of other artificial intelligence, he said. TikTok can learn about your consumer preferences by what’s in the background of your video. Did you mention you were going on a vacation somewhere? Don’t be surprised if you see ads for a hotel near your destination.

There is a more innocuous possibility, Patil said. Maybe these governors want their employees to stay focused at work.

The app is so effective that eventually a video from TikTok itself will appear nudging the user to consider whether they’ve been scrolling for too long.

This worry isn’t new. Just ask Greg Kinnear’s character in the 1998 Nora Ephron movie “You’ve Got Mail,” who during one scene worriedly read aloud from a newspaper that Virginia’s government (fictitiously) chose to remove solitaire from all government computers because no one had done any work for weeks. “You know what this is? You know what we’re seeing here? We’re seeing the end of Western civilization as we know it,” he told Meg Ryan’s character.

Patil agreed, saying social media companies don’t exist just to make users feel good.

“There is a deliberate attempt on the part of these companies to keep you there,” Patil said. “It’s not that users are addicted for no reason.”

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