In late December, Republican NC House Reps. Jason Saine and Jon Hardister called on Gov. Roy Cooper to ban the social media platform TikTok from state government devices. Last week, Gov. Cooper banned TikTok on all state-owned mobile phones, as well as the Chinese super-app WeChat.
It was the right move and a great example of what our state can accomplish when working in a bipartisan manner. But it did not go far enough.
Other states have already taken action, realizing the threat the TikTok app poses. Like any company with access to user data, the platform can surveil activity via data that users hand over to them, including IP addresses. Given the context of its Chinese ownership under parent company ByteDance, that becomes especially concerning.
Think this is just fear of monking? A month ago, TikTok admitted its high-level employees tracked IP addresses of journalists reporting on the company’s data practices, attempting to isolate leakers in the company. Moreover, China has increasingly intervened in its tech sector, cracking down on major tech companies and entrepreneurs, notably with the abrupt disappearance of prominent tech entrepreneur, Jack Ma.
The tight control in which China manages its tech companies and TikTok’s indifference to data privacy should be enough for North Carolina officials to know the state shouldn’t put government data in such hands.
The espionage threat is a serious one that impacts US and state government. It’s not just federal infrastructure that is threatened. With our state undoubtedly involved in critical issues such as our power grid — something the Chinese government has already reportedly hacked into elsewhere in the US — state employees should not be allowed another avenue for the Chinese government to have a birds-eye view on sensitive government matters.
While banning TikTok from state devices was the correct response, when it comes to personal privacy it’s frankly not enough. Our state still hasn’t enacted broad data privacy legislation. Banning TikTok is simply a one-off measure and pales in comparison to a much needed, broader privacy bill.
TikTok poses a threat because of the amount of data it has on its customers — but TikTok is not alone. Far too often, US companies over-collect personal information and sell it for profit to clandestine data brokers. From there, it’s a black box and there’s no telling who has your information.
An egregious, but not uncommon, example of this hits close to home. WakeMed and Novant Health embedded Facebook’s “Metapixel” in patient portals, which is used to schedule appointments, refill prescriptions and exchange messages with doctors. In doing so, patients had personal health information, such as health diagnoses, handed over to Facebook to be sold without their knowledge.
As a staffer for former Rep. Brian Farkas, we sent a letter to NC Attorney General Josh Stein calling for an investigation into the matter and asked Stein to provide us with any legislative recommendations to address the matter. To our surprise, HIPAA does not cover such violations of privacy.
These privacy concerns extend beyond the healthcare sector, and we already have many states such as Virginia, Utah, and California leading the way. We should take simple measures, such as establishing the right to clearly know if your data is being sold and distributed and the right to opt-out from the outlet.
To their credit, Republicans attempted to pass data breach legislation in the past, but the NC Chamber of Commerce stood in the way. The NC Chamber of Commerce put out its 2023 priorities highlighting that it plans to “monitor privacy legislation.” Anything that limits a company’s ability to maximize profits simply will not pass muster by the powerful interest group.
Gov. Cooper’s move to ban TikTok was the lowest of low-hanging fruit. If we’re going to ban TikTok, let’s at least be consistent and not cherry-pick which data issues we’re concerned about. We can and should do all of the above.
Graeme Strickland is a Democratic staffer in the NC General Assembly who works for Rep. Gloristine Brown, Dist. 8.