Saturday, Dec 09, 2023

Explained: Why Has US State Montana Banned TikTok, What Are The Security Concerns?

Explained: Why Has US State Montana Banned TikTok, What Are The Security Concerns?

Montana has become the first state in the United States to ban TikTok for all people. Earlier, the federal government banned employees from keeping TikTok on official devices.

Montana is the first US state to ban TikTok (Representative Image)
Montana is the first US state to ban TikTok (Representative Image)

After Montana became the first state in the United States to ban social media app TikTok, five users of the app have filed a lawsuit against the ban. 

TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance. There are cyber-security and geopolitical concerns over TikTok in the United States and elsewhere too.

The TikTok users in their legal complaint have said that the ban is an unconstitutional violation of free speech rights. The case was filed late Wednesday in federal court in Missoula, a city in Montana. 

In the United States, a ban on TikTok has bipartisan support and the initiative is supported by White House as well. The US federal government banned TikTok on official devices in February. Similar directives have also been issued by the Canadian federal government, the Europrean Union (EU), and the New Zealand parliament. India has also banned TikTok.

What we know of the Montana TikTok ban?

Montana Governor Greg Gianforte has approved a state law that bans TikTok. The ban would be effective from January 1, 2024. 

The law would penalise app stories featuring TikTok and the company itself on daily basis if it's featured in the state after the ban comes into force.

"While individual users and internet providers won’t be penalized, the new law fines any 'entity' — i.e. app stores like Apple or Google, or TikTok itself — $10,000 per day each time a person is able to download or access the platform," reports Yahoo News.

Experts have said that enforcing the ban could be tricky as users could get around the ban through virtual private networks (VPNs). They have also qestioned the legal soundness of the ban. 

Yahoo reports that TikTok is not the only app that the law approved by Gianforte bans. It also bans messaging app Telegram. 

"TikTok isn’t the only app being targeted. Telegram —which was founded in Russia and is currently headquartered in Dubai— as well as Chinese-owned WeChat and Temu and similar apps will also be banned from government devices and state business. Thee movee expands on a TikTok ban placed on Montana’s government and state network devices that took effect in December," reports Yahoo. 

What does the lawsuit against TikTok ban say?

The five TikTok users who have challenged the Montana ban say the state does not have authority over matters of national security. 

The law signed by Gianforte said it would protect Montana residents' private data and personal information from being harvested by the Chinese government.

TikTok has argued that the law infringes on people's First Amendment rights and is unlawful. 

One expert said the Montana TikTok ban is likely to be held unconstitutional as the state would not be able to "establish that the ban is necessary or tailored to any legitimate interest".

"Montanans are indisputably exercising their First Amendment rights when they post and consume content on TikTok. Because Montana can’t establish that the ban is necessary or tailored to any legitimate interest, the law is almost certain to be struck down as unconstitutional," said Jameel Jaffer, Executive Director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University to Independent.

What is TikTok, what are concerns about it?

TikTok is a video sharing social media app. It is owned by Chinese company ByteDance. 

TikTok became a huge hit among users, particularly the youth, with its 15-second short video format, which was later also copied by Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram and even YouTube, which dubbed their features as Reels and Shorts respectively. 

There are cyber-security and geopolitical concerns about TikTok as it is owned by a company based in China, where there is thin line —if any— between the state and private enterprise.

Amid unprecedented tensions and competition between the United States and China, the app and its potential misuse has translated into calls for a ban. 

Outlook earlier noted, "Since China is governed by the Communist Party of China and has no safeguards, free speech, or privacy, the line of state and private enterprises is blurry and it's feared that huge data generated on TikTok and huge user information the app collects might be accessed by the Chinese government."

Besides knowing user preferences and behaviour patterns of users as well as societies, TikTok collects lot of data, such as:

  • All TikTok videos you watch
  • All of your messages as messages are not encrypted
  • Your country location, IP address, and device type

Cyber-security company Kaspersky also notes that TikTok also collects the following information with permission:

  • Your exact location
  • Your phone’s contacts and other social network connections
  • Your age and phone number
  • Payment information

While most social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram collect such data, there are key differences that raise concerns over TikTok. Firstly, unlike Meta-owned Instagram or WhatsApp, TikTok chats are not end-to-end encrypted. Moreover, there are no safeguards or privacy rights in China, unlike the United States where any company or even the government could be held accountable.

"The potential access and misuse of US users' data by Chinese government is also a concern. If Chinese government accesses US users' data, then it can study behaviour patterns and flood the platform with targeted content to influence US behaviour and even meddle elections just like Russia was accused of in 2016 presidential election," noted Outlook earlier. 

The app also has a weak cyber-security framework. Kaspersky notes that TikTok does not use two-factor authorisation which makes it vulnerable to cyber attacks.

"One of the less-discussed TikTok security issues is the absence of two-factor authentication...Single-factor authentication is not uncommon on social platforms. Coupled with a weak password, this creates a possible security issue as it can lead to phishing or ransomware attacks, among other threats. Many social media platforms now offer two-factor authentication," notes Kaspersky.

(With AP inputs)