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The TikTok ban hints at a deeper problem with federal tech

On Behalf of | Mar 1, 2023 | Federal Employment Law

Many federal employees use government-issued smartphones, tablets and other devices. Now, those employees face a deadline to scrub the TikTok app off their devices.

As the Government Executive reported, the White House publicized the ban on Monday, February 27. Its guidance gave everyone a deadline 30 days out to remove TikTok from all government devices. Agencies face additional deadline at 90 and 120 days from the notice. By these deadlines, agencies need to adjust their policies for all future contracts, including those with contractors.

What’s the problem with TikTok?

Lawmakers singled out TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, because they allow Chinese agencies to access American user data. This raises all kinds of red flags for user privacy. But in the context of government devices, these concerns take on even greater importance.

Government devices have historically presented a weak link in information security. FedWeek noted, in March 2022, that mobile devices often incorporate cameras, microphones and GPS tracking that can allow others to eavesdrop and steal information.

The Endpoint Ecosystem study, also released in March 2022, introduced some troubling statistics about employees’ use of government devices:

  • 73% admitted using workarounds, such as storing government data in non-work apps like Dropbox and Gmail
  • 31% said they knew someone who exposed their agency to a data breach
  • 44% said they used their work devices for personal use
  • 24% said they allowed their family to use their work devices for personal use
  • 89% said they used their personal smartphones for work, even though only 25% had authorization to access government systems

The takeaway is that federal employees don’t always do a great job of following the rules. Their actions often create opportunities for hackers and breaches. By banning TikTok, lawmakers presumably aim to limit the potential damage caused by any such breaches.

Can you get fired for having TikTok on your phone?

Federal employees who fail to remove TikTok from their government devices can face serious consequences. These can potentially include termination.

Section 2635.704 of the Code of Federal Regulations states that federal employees have “a duty to protect and conserve Government property.” They should not use government devices, or allow others to use them, for anything other than “authorized purposes.”

Naturally, these rules cover government-issued phones. However, they cover plenty of other “properties” you should also consider:

  • Office supplies
  • Mail and email services
  • Automated data processing
  • Printers and copiers
  • Vehicles

In short, employees can run afoul of the Code of Federal Regulations if they misuse anything purchased or leased with government funds. In fact, the rules clarify that government property may even be “intangible.” The services provided by contracted personnel can count as government “property.”

Federal employees can respond to unjust discipline

There are several exceptions to the TikTok ban. These exceptions apply on a case-by-case basis, rather than agency-wide. They typically aim at advancing national security or other research.

It is conceivable that someone might believe they had received an exception to the ban and then face discipline based on the failure to delete the app. This may sound a little silly in the abstract. However, there are millions of federal employees. At that scale, mistakes are inevitable, and there’s nothing silly about unjust disciplinary actions.

That’s why it’s important for federal employees to understand their rights and their options for responding to proposed disciplinary actions. No one wants smartphone apps to bring about stupid terminations.


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