Washington County first to ban TikTok on government devices

Empower Wisconsin | Dec. 21, 2022

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Washington County Executive Josh Schoemann has banned TikTok on government devices, apparently making the southeast Wisconsin county the first county in the nation to prohibit the controversial video-sharing app.

Schoemann’s action comes as Wisconsin’s Republican congressional delegation urges Gov. Tony Evers’ to ban TikTok from state government devices. The governor’s office has been dismissive of the lawmakers’ requests, even as a bipartisan congress moves to jettison TikTok from federal government devices on warnings of the grave security threats the Chinese Communist Party-connected app poses.

Washington County’s ban goes into effect immediately, with its IT department beginning the process of blocking and removing the app from county staff devices, Schoemann said. 

Reports that TikTok continues to access U.S. data from China have raised national and personal security alarm bells. The Chinese government owns a stake in TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance. Cybersecurity experts worry the Chinese Communist Party is using the social media giant to push its propaganda, censor information it doesn’t like or even put users — particularly government employees —  in compromising positions.

“When you think of the clients we work with, we have very personal information about them and that really becomes concerning when somebody, somewhere in this country — or worse, elsewhere — has access to it or can steal it or manipulate identities,” Schoemann said. “This is just a common-sense solution.”

An investigation by Buzzfeed News based on leaked audio from internal TikTok meetings revealed U.S. data continues to be accessed from China. And leaked internal documents reported on by the Guardian in September 2019 showed TikTok moderators were ordered to censor videos that mentioned Tiananmen Square and Tibetan independence, among other forbidden topics.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the “No TikTok on Government Devices Act.” The measure is part of the estimated $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill moving its way through congress this week. Several states, including Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, and Texas have banned the app on government devices.

The State Department, Department of Defense, Transportation Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security previously barred the app from their agency devices following national security concerns brought by FBI director Chris Wray.

U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI 8th CD) has introduced  legislation that would ban TikTok nationally. He also led Wisconsin’s Republican congressional delegation in sending a letter to Evers calling on him to ban TikTok from all state government devices.

Evers’ flack shrugged off concerns, mocking the delegation’s letter. 

“My favorite part about Wisconsin Republicans’ ~we want to work together~ narrative is when they send a formal, three-page letter that could’ve been a phone call just so they leak to press and get stories like this,” tweeted Evers’press secretary Britt Cudaback.

Pressed by reporters, the governor’s office said, “We will continue to defer to the judgment and advice of law enforcement, cybersecurity, and counterintelligence experts regarding this and other evolving cybersecurity issues.”

Evers’ office did not respond to Empower Wisconsin’s email last week asking where the governor stood on the issue.

Evers extensively used TikTok on the campaign trail. His agencies also use it to promote government programs and initiatives.

“What we’re seeing is people looking at it as an easy way to connect with people and to get their messages out, not considering the dangers and risks our very own FBI are pointing to,” Schoemann said.

The Washington County executive added that he hopes other local and state governments will follow his example. Interestingly, on the same day he announced the county government TikTok ban, the library in West Bend, county seat of Washington County, announced the launch of its TikTok account.

Gallagher praised Schoemann’s security policy.

TikTok is a trojan horse that gives the Chinese Communist Party access to your data and the ability to track your location and monitor your keystrokes. It’s common sense to prevent this spyware from being downloaded onto to government phones, and I commend County Executive Schoemann for taking this step to better protect Wisconsinites,” the congressman said. “I hope more County Executives, as well as Governor Evers, follow this example and ensure no government device has TikTok on their phone.”

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