The parent company of TikTok is tracking the websites of dozens of US state governments, as President Biden still weighs an outright federal ban of the Chinese app.
Canadian cybersecurity company Feroot Security found at least 27 state government websites have web-tracking code placed by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., which runs TikTok, according to an exclusive report from The Wall Street Journal.
The report — which surveyed more than 3,500 companies, organizations and government entities in January and February — is the latest to reveal how the US unknowingly shares data with subsidiaries of the Chinese Communist Party.
Republicans have raised concerns for several years that China’s government could obtain data from more than 150 million US users through the app.
“So TikTok is now turning state government websites into surveillance devices. Here’s an idea. Ban TikTok,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) tweeted in response to the report.
“Can’t wait to hear the explanation for this.” Hawley, 43, added.
“So TikTok is now turning state government websites into surveillance devices. Here’s an idea. Ban TikTok”
The Trump administration prepared to ban TikTok in 2020 over national security concerns, but the company successfully held up the order in the courts and Biden rolled it back after taking office.
The Biden administration has navigated tough Republican opposition toward TikTok, as GOP lawmakers have called for a crackdown — and hit Democrats over their permissive stance on the Chinese app.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), 51, told listeners this month on Fox Radio’s “Brian Kilmeade Show” that it’s a problem that “a lot of Democrat candidates, a lot of Democrat officeholders have TikTok accounts.”
“Democratic political operatives believed that TikTok is politically advantageous for them,” he said. “And so they kind of want to look tough on China, but they don’t want to crack down on this website, because they’re using it, and they think it benefits them, even though it’s hurting the country.”
Rubio and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, pressed the Federal Trade Commission last July to investigate how much access the Chinese government has to US users’ data, in a rare bipartisan move on the issue.
Biden, 80, has rarely discussed the issue ahead of an expected 2024 presidential run, apparently for fear of alienating a key Democratic voting bloc: Generation Z.
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said as much in a March interview.
“The politician in me thinks you’re gonna literally lose every voter under 35, forever,” she told Bloomberg of the potential risk of banning the app.
Biden said last month that he was “not sure” either about an outright ban.
“I know I don’t have it on my phone,” he told reporters upon return from a weekend retreat at Camp David.
But Biden reversed course last week when his Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States ordered ByteDance to sell its stake in the social media company or else face a US ban.
Rubio noted on Tuesday he had called for the CFIUS review nearly four years ago.
Feroot Security CEO Ivan Tsarynny told The Wall Street Journal that TikTok “can be watching and recording you when you’re renewing your driver’s license, paying your taxes or filling out doctors’ forms” through pixels it leaves on the government websites.
Those pixels also track the effectiveness of ads, according to a TikTok spokeswoman, but the company maintains it does not use them for other purposes.
Maryland and Utah both banned TikTok from state devices in December, but were notified that pixels were present in their websites’ codes.
Officials have since removed the pixels.
Last week, Rubio and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) introduced the No Funds for Enablers of Adversarial Propaganda Act, which would block federal funding to entities that advertise with TikTok.
In the House, Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas) has also backed bills that would sanction TikTok and other Chinese entities.
TikTok has said it is spending $1.5 billion to guard users’ data, which it claims is only stored in the US.
“Our terms instruct advertisers not to share certain data with us, and we continuously work with our partners to avoid inadvertent transmission of such data,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew urged app users on Tuesday to lobby against a US ban on the app, asking them to post “what you love about TikTok” online.
“Some politicians have started talking about banning TikTok,” which “could take TikTok away from all 150 million of you,” he said in anticipation of testimony he will give this week before Congress, where he plans to share their posts.
Chew is expected at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Thursday.