The House’s Chief Administration Officer is warning lawmakers of security concerns tied to TikTok as campaign season fuels interest in the app.
While primarily known for viral dance videos and dishing up a lighter side of the internet, lawmakers have been flocking to the app, seeing an opportunity to reach new and different demographics — especially younger voters.
But as lawmakers increasingly jump at the chance to be content creators, the operational office for the House issued a stern warning with a new cyber advisory.
“The ‘TikTok’ mobile application has been deemed by the CAO Office of CyberSecurity to be a high-risk to users due to its lack of transparency in how it protects customer data, its requirement of excessive permissions, and the potential security risks involved with its use,” the office wrote in a memo released Tuesday.
“We do not recommend the download or use of this application due to these security and privacy concerns.”
The concern surrounding the Chinese company that operates TikTok stems from fears that the app’s access to a wide suite of data stored on user’s phones could be accessed by the country’s government.
The advisory comes with no shortage of ways the app could access personal information, including checking a location device once an hour, and noting that the app “continually requests access” to a user’s contacts and external storage.
“TikTok actively harvests content for identifiable data. TikTok ‘may collect biometric identifiers and biometric information as defined under US laws,’ including ‘faceprints’ and ‘voiceprints,’ from videos users upload to their platform,” the advisory states.
It also may be able to access the device phone number, Wi-Fi network names, SIM card serial numbers, GPS status information and subscription information.
In response to security concerns, TikTok has pledged to move U.S. users’ data to third-party Oracle servers located outside of China, a transition that is still in process.
But the warning to lawmakers comes after many themselves voted to bar use of the app on any federal device in the 2021 military policy bill.
“I use it because we try to communicate with constituents through every medium available. We do town halls, mailers, surveys, tele-town halls, Twitter spaces, Instagram, Facebook, door knocking, TikTok. If I thought people were going to look at smoke signals and decipher that, we would have a smoke signal program,” Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.) told The Hill earlier this month.
Auchincloss’s videos primarily show him talking about legislation, though in one he’s seen writing a response to Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) office, complete with a time-lapse video of him riding the Senate subway to hand deliver it.
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a relative newcomer to TikTok, has posted a video of himself speaking on the House floor in support of a bill that would defend same-sex marriage, as well as another where his is affectionately petting a dog as a recording of Demi Lovato’s voice says, “I love this man. And I have to have him.”
And videos from Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) range from serious to silly, in some cases reacting to the Supreme Court’s reversal on abortion rights or speaking at various graduations, to the lighter side, showing the former educator participating in an egg drop competition with middle schoolers or petting goats.
Reached for comment Wednesday, Bowman’s office said it would suspend use of the app.
“TikTok has been a way to reach young and otherwise disengaged people, but now that we have more details about the security risks of having it on government devices, we will pause on usage until we feel safe and get further clarity,” a spokeswoman for Bowman said in a statement to The Hill.
Other lawmakers have previously acknowledged they did have some concerns about the app.
“We only just put something up for the first time. So it’s not something I have used extensively. I do have concerns about the company. At the same time, tens of millions of Americans are on the site. So, you know, we’re on Facebook, even though I think Facebook has probably done more damage to American democracy than any company anywhere in the world. So this is always a dilemma,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) said.
TikTok pushed back against the advisory in the statement to The Hill Wednesday.
“The allegations in the House CAO’s advisory about TikTok range from misleading to wrong. We have requested a meeting to discuss the multiple inaccuracies in the advisory, and we look forward to working with them so they can advise Members and staff on concrete steps they can take to keep their data secure and private when using any social platform to connect with constituents,” a TikTok spokesperson said by email.
But one Democratic staffer who had been advising against the use of the app said other offices would be wise to ensure their bosses don’t log on.
“I think it’s enlightening that when you have a nonpartisan arbiter or a sort of objective third party making it very clear that the use of TikTok is discouraged. And I think that just further emphasizes the point that while there may be some cachet or appeal in being able to attract younger voters, it’s very likely that the potential risks seem to greatly outweigh the potential benefit,” the staffer said.
“While I understand the appeal of doing this, I think that it’s probably in the best interest of national security to stay far away from TikTok.”