Just like teens, members of Congress are setting up TikTok accounts — even as the popular app is increasingly barred from government devices and heads of federal intelligence agencies raise concerns about data collection and surveillance obtained by a Chinese-owned company.
At least 32 members of Congress — all Democrats and one independent — as of early January had TikTok accounts, according to a review by States Newsroom. Two of them represent the state of Florida.
While there are no laws in place banning lawmakers from using the app on their personal devices, cybersecurity experts have raised concerns over data collection for those members who deal with sensitive government topics.
Of those members of Congress, at least half either sit or have previously served on committees dealing with foreign affairs, the U.S. military, investigations, and national security.
One enthusiastic TikTok user is U.S. Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who sits on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Booker has a huge TikTok following of more than 329,000 accounts and has racked up 2.8 million likes.
However, he does not have the application installed on any government devices and his team regularly consults with security experts to “update and implement the necessary precautions to ensure continued account and information security,” Maya Krishna-Rogers, a spokesperson for Booker, said in an email to States Newsroom.
At issue for critics is TikTok’s ownership by ByteDance, which is based in China and owned by that government. The popular app has more than 1 billion downloads, with two-thirds of U.S. downloads coming from teens, according to Pew Research Center.
Several cybersecurity experts raised concerns about not just lawmakers’ use of TikTok, but other social media platforms like Meta – formerly named Facebook Inc. – and Instagram that can easily track a user’s location and even obtain access to microphones and cameras for sitting members of Congress.
“It’s reckless for them to be using software that has these potential national security vulnerabilities,” said Anton Dahbura, a cybersecurity expert. Dahbura added that the problem is that the data collected from the app is sent to China, where that government has “a long track record of using data for nefarious purposes.”
Dahbura, who is executive director at Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute, said that members of Congress should exercise caution and not use the app “until the authorities give the all-clear sign — it’s a very bad idea to be using TikTok.”
He pointed to public warnings from the FBI last year about TikTok. FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that the FBI does have national security concerns with TikTok.
“They include the possibility that the Chinese government could use it to control data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations if they so choose, or to control software on millions of devices, which gives it an opportunity to potentially technically compromise personal devices,” Wray told lawmakers during a November hearing.
Some lawmakers with TikTok accounts deal with national security and sensitive investigations. That includes U.S. Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, who previously led the House Homeland Security Committee and was tapped by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to lead the Jan. 6 investigations into the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Other high-profile Democrats who have accounts include the chair of the U.S. House Congressional Progressive Caucus, Pramila Jayapal of Washington; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York; and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Florida Reps. Maxwell Frost and Frederica Wilson also have accounts.
Several members of Congress have called for a nationwide ban on the app, such as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, who introduced legislation to ban not only TikTok but other social media platforms controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.
Brooke Oberwetter, a TikTok spokesperson, said the company is disappointed that Congress has moved to ban the app from government devices, calling it “a political gesture that will do nothing to advance national security interests.”
Late last year, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri’s bill that would ban federal employees from using TikTok on government devices. The bill became law after senators attached it to a massive omnibus bill for funding the government in December last year.
Most lawmakers on the app follow each other and accounts that are aligned with their party platforms, but some lawmakers follow accounts that have nothing to do with politics.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the independent and former presidential candidate, appears to be the member of Congress with the most TikTok followers at 1.4 million. He has more TikTok followers than people that he represents in his home state of Vermont, which has a population of more than 645,000.
Sanders, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, did not respond to questions about his TikTok account.
And it’s not just congressional Republicans who are pushing for a ban. More than a dozen GOP and a handful of Democratic governors have taken steps to ban the app from government devices.
Some of those states with a total ban on TikTok from government devices include Nebraska, Indiana, Idaho, Iowa, South Dakota, Maryland, New Hampshire, Georgia, Tennessee, Ohio, Montana, Wyoming, Virginia, North Dakota, Texas, South Carolina, Utah, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Alaska, and Alabama.
Democratic governors who have issued executive orders banning TikTok from government devices include Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper.
States with partial bans on the app for government devices include Florida’s Department of Financial Services, Pennsylvania’s Department of Treasury, and Louisiana’s State Department.
In 2020, former President Donald Trump signed an executive order, banning the app. However, it was never enforced.
Republished with permission of the Florida Phoenix.
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