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US State asks FBI for proof to ban TikTok app and none was given.

In order to outlaw TikTok, a US state requested proof. The FBI provided none, according to emails that indicate after consulting with the FBI, Connecticut state officials decided against outlawing the Chinese-owned app.

Connecticut’s cybersecurity officials appealed to the FBI for advice after Maryland became the most recent US state to outlaw the use of TikTok on government equipment and networks last month.

The FBI’s leadership and Republican governors had issued dire warnings that the Chinese-owned app presented grave risks to privacy and national security, and they wanted to know if the agency had any further information to support a ban in their state.

Good day, gentlemen. In an email sent on December 7 to a contact at the FBI, Connecticut’s top information security officer, Jeff Brown, stated, “We’re seeking for any advise on TikTok after Maryland tried to ‘ban’ its use.

“Our reasoning is outlined below, but we’d want to hear your opinions. Thank you for any comments,” Brown said in the email, which was also forwarded to officials at the Department of Homeland Security and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).

Brown’s email also contained a sequence of correspondence in which he and Mark Raymond, Connecticut’s chief information officer (CIO), concurred that Maryland’s restriction appeared to be an instance of “overreach.”

When given the chance to offer more details in favor of a ban, the FBI contact turned it down. The FBI agent, who oversees a Connecticut-based squad devoted to combating cybercrime, wrote to Brown in an email, “I instructed one of my analysts to reach out to our HQ.”

At the end of the day, she emailed me to say that she had been unable to locate any proof that we had any extra information to provide.

Maryland and other states that had issued a ban on TikTok looked to have “based their choices on press stories and other open source information about China in general, not unique to Tik Tok,” the FBI agent paraphrased his analyst as stating. We apologize that we are unable to provide more assistance.

The CISA contact, a Connecticut cybersecurity advisor, informed Brown that he had “no more” information and would advise deferring to the advice of the FBI.

A ban could “drive additional Chinese cyber activity and interest in Connecticut,” according to Raymond, the Connecticut CIO, who ultimately decided that the risk of TikTok was “low” based on the fact that, among other things, he had not received any information suggesting Tiktok had misused data, concerns about the app appeared to have nothing to do with the platform itself, and he had not received any information suggesting Tiktok had misused data.

Ned Lamont, the Democratic governor of Connecticut, should “take no action at this time,” but he advised Lamont to keep an eye on the matter. Al Jazeera approached Raymond for response, and he stated that safeguarding state networks is “very high priority for us.”

He said, “We continuously examine security concerns against the state and take appropriate action.” “We continue to work with all of our partners to develop the best suggestions for our state. We are in favor of national action on issues that could endanger our national security.

China may “manipulate material” on TikTok to conduct influence operations and obtain personal information for espionage purposes, Wray has frequently said.

“All of these things are in the hands of a government that doesn’t share our values and that has a mission that’s very much at odds with what’s in the best interests of the United States,” Wray said last month at a University of Michigan event. That should worry us,

In response to a request for comment, the FBI National Press Office pointed Al Jazeera to earlier statements made by Director Christopher Wray, in which he claimed that the FBI is advising the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) while it consults TikTok on how to address concerns about national security and expressed worry about the Chinese government ordering businesses to hand over sensitive data.

The incident in Connecticut, which has not previously been published, contrasts sharply with the public cautions FBI Director Christopher Wray has issued regarding TikTok.

ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, claims that the FBI’s warnings about the app are merely hypothetical and that no proof of wrongdoing has been provided. ByteDance has its headquarters in Beijing and is incorporated in the Cayman Islands.

As part of a contract it is negotiating with CFIUS, ByteDance claims it is trying to resolve any threats to national security and has long stated it will never share user data with the Chinese government.

As we have previously stated, these state and university prohibitions are motivated by false information about TikTok, according to Brooke Oberwetter, a spokeswoman for the firm, who talked to Al Jazeera.

“We stand ready to fully brief state and local governments about our all-encompassing strategy to handle national security issues, plans created under the supervision of our nation’s top national security agencies,” the statement reads.

TikTok bans are becoming more common, but tech experts and even some government officials, like those in Connecticut, agree that there is little technical support for the kind of terror and anxiety the video-streaming platform, one of the most widely used apps in the world, has sparked.

The majority of justifications for limiting the app, however, have instead been based on a general suspicion of Beijing, including worries that Beijing would get access to users’ personal information or sway public opinion for malicious purposes.

According to Cliff Lampe, a professor of information at the University of Michigan, “we haven’t seen any indication that TikTok is a larger risk than any other social networking platform.”

Even if the majority of TikTok traffic in the US is controlled by US servers, the only issue raised is that its primary owner is a Chinese corporation. According to this rationale, TikTok could be requested by the Chinese government for user information.

TikTok was initially targeted by the Trump administration in 2020 with plans for an outright ban, but efforts to stop the app gained steam after South Dakota announced its prohibition in November of last year.

Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota asserted that the Chinese Communist Party utilized the app to “manipulate the American people” and declared that her state will not participate in the “intelligence collecting operations of nations which detest us.”

The Republican affiliation of Noem and other governors who enacted early bans appears to have had some influence on convincing other states to do the same.

A newsletter highlighting recent bans in South Dakota, South Carolina, Maryland, and Texas was distributed to Republican-led state governments in December of last year by the Republican Governors Public Policy Committee (RGPPC), a public policy organization for promoting conservative policy at the state level.

Zach Swint, a senior policy adviser for the RGPPC, stated in the December 7 newsletter that “over the last week, four Republican governors prohibited or restricted the social media site, TikTok, on state devices.”

The newsletter prompted the chief of staff to Governor Doug Burgum in North Dakota, who on December 13 banned TikTok on state-owned devices, to ask state cybersecurity officials to “quickly determine if we have any state devices using TikTok and if we should consider an action like other governors below.”

Jace Beehler wrote in an email dated December 8: “Please accelerate this and offer a suggestion as soon as feasible.”

Professor Lampe of the University of Michigan stated that states “given their lack of knowledge in the field” appear to have resorted to each other for guidance on how to tackle TiKTok. “The problem with that, though, is that if the legislation is bad, it will spread swiftly and without any scrutiny.

My impression is that part of this is due to the fact that legislatures are typically run by older individuals, who would consider a youth-oriented social platform to be mundane, making the risk of being overly rigid low.

partisan concerns

TikTok for government equipment has currently been outlawed in at least 28 US states, including Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, and Georgia. While most have Republican governors, states with Democratic governors like Wisconsin and North Carolina have also implemented bans, which are gaining more and more support from both parties.

While certain Republican lawmakers are attempting to pass legislation that would outright ban the app, US President Joe Biden signed legislation in December that contained a ban for federal government devices. A prohibition on official gadgets has just been issued at universities in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Georgia, and Iowa.

According to Marc Faddoul, codirector of AI Forensics, a European non-profit that studies the workings of TikTok, fears that the app has access to a lot of personal data and could be used to affect public opinion are both fair and rife with hypocrisy.

Faddoul told Al Jazeera, “I think the concerns are legitimate, but I think the US government’s position is hypocritical because the same concern is true for any other country with respect to the American platforms. It’s also critical to recognize that the US government respects democratic norms more than its Chinese counterpart.”

The US government may use its influence over domestic businesses for national security purposes, as it has in the past, and may do so again in the event of a war to potentially filter and advance certain sorts of information.

Faddoul argued that rather than just TikTok, conversations should concentrate more on safeguarding user data across the entire sector.

I do think that implementing systematic data protection laws for the entire sector would be a better strategy, he stated.

Some state officials have voiced ambivalence toward the app despite the fact that TikTok has been banned in the majority of US states.

Because the app is useful for some official activities, state governments have in some situations carved out exclusions.

According to emails obtained by Al Jazeera through a public records request, officials at the Division of Juvenile Justice and Youth Services in Utah, which banned TikTok on state-owned devices on December 12, requested an exception to let some workers to access the app.

One of the first states to announce a ban, South Carolina, retrospectively made changes to allow “identified” law enforcement employees to use TikTok, according to emails obtained through a public documents request.

According to emails obtained by Al Jazeera last month, the state’s top cybersecurity officer preferred a “separate and isolated devices” restriction over a complete ban for the app in New Jersey, where Democrats hold the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature. Like the majority of states headed by Democrats, New Jersey has not yet made its app usage limitations public.

In order to restrict the usage of TikTok, some states seem to have selected a low-key strategy.

Emails from the state of Michigan’s director of communications, Caleb Buhs, reveal that TikTok will be added to a list of social media sites that were not permitted for official usage starting the next month.

Michigan has not yet imposed a ban on the app, and the governor of the state, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, continues to use a TikTok account where she frequently uploads videos.

The non-profit Public Knowledge expert Sara Collins said that TikTok’s ties to China warrant close examination, the debate surrounding the app has obscured the general absence of privacy protections in the internet age. Collins said to Al Jazeera, “TikTok rightly merits more investigation given China’s totalitarian government and its influence over its enterprises.”

“However, the discussion surrounding the TikTok bans has mostly shifted away from addressing specific threats and turned into an easy vehicle for politicians to demonstrate their animosity toward China.

Like any social media networks, TikTok amasses a vast amount of user data. This ongoing surveillance can be harmful, as we have seen with other major digital companies.

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