WASHINGTON — Just like teens, members of Congress are setting up TikTok accounts — even as the popular app is increasingly barred from government devices and heads of federal intelligence agencies raise concerns about data collection and surveillance obtained by a Chinese-owned company.
At least 32 members of Congress — all Democrats and one independent — as of early January had TikTok accounts, according to a review by States Newsroom. While there are no laws in place banning lawmakers from using the app on their personal devices, cybersecurity experts have raised concerns over data collection for those members who deal with sensitive government topics.
Of those members of Congress, at least half either currently sit or have previously served on committees dealing with foreign affairs, the U.S. military, investigations and national security.
One enthusiastic TikTok user is U.S. Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who sits on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Booker has a huge TikTok following of more than 329,000 accounts and has racked up 2.8 million likes.
However, he does not have the application installed on any government devices and his team regularly consults with security experts to “update and implement the necessary precautions to ensure continued account and information security,” Maya Krishna-Rogers, a spokesperson for Booker, said in an email to States Newsroom.
She said Booker joined in early 2022, as a way to connect with constituents.
“Senator Booker has found TikTok to be a creative and engaging space, and thinks it is important to meet people where they are, bringing more messages of kindness, truth, and justice to Americans,” she said.
“He has always been an advocate for continued oversight and necessary regulation to ensure that social media platforms are prioritizing user privacy and safety.”
Concerns about social media
At issue for critics is TikTok’s ownership by ByteDance, which is based in China and owned by that government. The popular app has more than 1 billion downloads, with two-thirds of U.S. downloads coming from teens, according to Pew Research Center.
Several cybersecurity experts raised concerns about not just lawmakers’ use of TikTok, but other social media platforms like Meta – formerly named Facebook Inc. – and Instagram that can easily track a user’s location and even obtain access to microphones and cameras for sitting members of Congress.
“It’s reckless for them to be using software that has these potential national security vulnerabilities,” said Anton Dahbura, a cybersecurity expert. Dahbura added that the problem is that the data collected from the app is sent to China, where that government has “a long track record of using data for nefarious purposes.”
Dahbura, who is the executive director at Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute, said that members of Congress should exercise caution and not use the app “until the authorities give the all clear sign — it’s a very bad idea to be using TikTok.”
He pointed to public warnings from the FBI last year that raised questions about TikTok. FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that the FBI does have national security concerns with TikTok.
“They include the possibility that the Chinese government could use it to control data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations if they so choose, or to control software on millions of devices, which gives it an opportunity to potentially technically compromise personal devices,” Wray told lawmakers during a November hearing.
Members on TikTok
Some lawmakers with TikTok accounts deal with national security issues and sensitive investigations. That includes U.S. Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, who previously led the House Homeland Security Committee and was…