Empower Wisconsin | Dec. 30, 2022
By Ben Voelkel
Gov. Tony Evers and Republican legislative leaders are talking again, proving that the holiday season really is a time for miracles. It was more than two years between meetings for Evers and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester). Evers and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu never met in person over the last two years.
But for this thaw to last, Evers needs to show executive leadership and come to the table ready to demonstrate a genuine interest in working across the aisle on non-partisan issues.
First up: Evers should follow the common sense urging of Wisconsin Republican leaders and ban TikTok from state government devices. After weeks of delays and mounting evidence against the popular video-sharing app, Evers told reporters Thursday he’ll think about it.
Now, let me first acknowledge something: I think TikTok is horrible.
Like most social media, it’s a tremendous waste of time. Kids and teens are now spending more than an hour and a half per day on the app. This at the same time obesity rates skyrocket and student test scores plummet.
But a state ban on TikTok really isn’t about any of those things. The reality is TikTok has no place within a wifi signal of the State Capitol because it’s reasonable to believe that TikTok is a Chinese spy front that represents a massive cyber security risk that puts the whole state at risk.
New research from the Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty shows why. TikTok is able to access the keystrokes of users – not just when they’re on the app, but anytime they’re using the device the app is downloaded on. That capability could allow an easy backdoor for hackers based in China (or elsewhere) access to critical government systems, like what happened in a 2019 hacking incident that brought the city of Baltimore to its knees. While not conclusively tied to Chinese hackers, a similar attack on Wisconsin systems – say Wisconsin’s emergency management operations – could have deadly consequences.
Recent reports have also revealed that TikTok’s parent company, the Chinese Communist Party-aligned ByteDance, used the app to track the movements of journalists from Forbes and the Financial Times to determine who they were meeting with. Tracking the location of a state elected official using TikTok – say, for instance, a lieutenant governor – could pose physical security risks in addition to the cyber security threats.
So far, Republicans like Wisconsin’s Rep. Mike Gallagher have led the charge to ban TikTok, but it’s far from a partisan issue. Governors of 15 states – from both parties – have banned the app from state phones. The U.S. Senate recently passed a ban of TikTok on federal devices unanimously. The House of Representatives has banned TikTok on its government-issued devices. And during his 2020 Presidential campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden recognized the potential danger of the app and ordered his campaign staff to delete it from their phones.
Evers’ rationale for not being more aggressive in banning the Chinese spyware is that TikTok is only downloaded on about a dozen state devices. That argument doesn’t hold water. If the footprint is minimal, then there shouldn’t be much of a disruption at all in banning it. The tradeoff between posting a few funny videos or protecting the state against a potential hack is a no brainer.
Voters granted Tony Evers a second term and he has an opportunity to prove he can put partisanship aside and work with Republicans to do something in the best interests of all Wisconsinites.
Does Gov. Evers have the fortitude and political courage to do so?
He’s on the clock.