Tick, Tock… Time is Up for TSA Use of TikTok Amid National Security Concerns

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has told its employees to stop using the TikTok app to create content for the agency. The ban on using the social media platform follows pressure from lawmakers over TikTok’s ties to China.

In January, the departments of State and Homeland Security joined the Pentagon in prohibiting the use of the Chinese-owned social media application TikTok on government-issued devices. But TSA content has since been created using TikTok, which it says was via employees’ personal devices.

Other countries have already banned the use of TikTok, including India, Bangladesh and Indonesia, citing the plethora of inappropriate content and dangers posed by crazes made popular by the app. In one case, a user actually slit his throat while filming himself pretending to do so, and in another, a gun fired which killed the man who had been posing with it for a TikTok video. There have also been numerous car chases and violence recorded using the app.

The TikTok app is extremely popular with young people, and is becoming more so. In addition to concerns relating to violent and unregulated content, there is the broader national security concern that Beijing could have access to a plethora of information about U.S. citizens, as well as shaping what it sees on social media.

The U.S. intelligence community remains deeply concerned about the potential for Chinese intelligence and security services to use Chinese information technology firms as routine and systemic espionage platforms against the United States and its allies.

The World Threat Assessment (WTA) from the U.S. National Intelligence Community ranks China, along with Russia, as the greatest espionage and cyber attack threat.

The WTA states: “In the last decade, our adversaries and strategic competitors have developed and experimented with a growing capability to shape and alter the information and systems on which we rely. For years, they have conducted cyber espionage to collect intelligence and targeted our critical infrastructure to hold it at risk.

“They are now becoming more adept at using social media to alter how we think, behave, and decide. As we connect and integrate billions of new digital devices into our lives and business processes, adversaries and strategic competitors almost certainly will gain greater insight into and access to our protected information.”

The WTA also warned that Beijing will authorize cyber espionage against key U.S. technology sectors when doing so addresses a significant national security or economic goal not achievable through other means.

Citing the DHS ban, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer criticized TSA on February 23 for still using the app on social media. Schumer said the risks to American and federal agency security via the platform remain very real and urged the TSA to cease its use of TikTok. 

“The TSA is to be recognized for its work to engage a variety of stakeholders with airline rules and safety, but it also must acknowledge the ironic risk it’s placing its own agency—and potentially the public—in with its continued use of the China-owned TikTok app,” Schumer said. “Given the widely reported threats, the already-in-place agency bans, and the existing national security concerns posed by TikTok, the feds cannot continue to allow the TSA’s use of the platform to fly.”

Even amidst federal inquiries into the TikTok app, the TSA was posting a variety of videos from agency accounts, which Schumer says raises security concerns. On Thanksgiving, the TSA posted a TikTok that went viral related to the ‘nopes’ & ‘yeps’ of carry-on luggage. And this past Valentine’s Day, the agency posted ‘romantic tips’ for travelers in another TikTok. 

Schumer said these more recent TikToks were even more concerning because they were posted amidst the DHS’ own TikTok ban.

“These videos sure do make you chuckle; they’re creative,” said Schumer. “But China might be laughing at these TSA postings for very different reasons.”

On October 23, 2019, Schumer sent a letter to the Acting Director of National Intelligence requesting that the Intelligence Community conduct an assessment of the national security risks posed by TikTok and other China-owned content platforms operating in the United States. Schumer explained that national security experts have raised concerns about TikTok’s collection and handling of user data, including user content and communications, IP addresses, location-related data, metadata, and other sensitive personal information, particularly when viewed in light of laws that compel Chinese companies to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. Schumer further explained that due to a lack of transparency and without an independent judiciary to review requests made by the Chinese government for user data or other actions, that there is no legal mechanism for Chinese companies to appeal if they disagree with a request by the government.

Soon after Schumer’s initial concerns were aired, the Department of Defense, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security all banned the use of TikTok as it related to government devices, and encouraged personnel to avoid the app altogether.

Schumer’s February 23 letter to TSA Administrator David Pekoske requested the answers to three questions:

  1. Has the TSA consulted with the Intelligence Community and the Department of Homeland Security with regard to TikTok and other China-owned social media platforms, and whether they pose security risks as platforms for engaging the flying public? If not, does the TSA have future plans for such consultations?
  2. Has the TSA been given an exemption from the Department of Homeland Security’s own ban of TikTok?
  3. Are TSA officials using government issued devices as part of their official TikTok usage?

Several February 24 and 25 media reports have quoted a TSA spokesperson as saying that the agency has an “award-winning presence on several social media platforms” but that it has never published any content to TikTok or directed viewers to it.

“A small number of TSA employees have previously used Tik Tok on their personal devices to create videos for use in TSA’s social media outreach, but that practice has been discontinued,” the spokesperson said.

Anyone who follows TSA on social media will know that it uses a variety of methods to get its message across, and it does so ingeniously and successfully. It is hoped that such creativity will continue, using state-approved applications and technology providers.

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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