Why Utah Gov. Spencer Cox banned TikTok on state government devices

“China’s access to data collected by TikTok presents a threat to our cybersecurity,” the Utah governor said in a news release Monday

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has banned the use of the popular social media app TikTok on state-owned electronic devices, according to a news release from the governor’s office on Monday morning.

The ban, which begins “immediately,” says that state executive branch agency employees “may not, on any state-owned electronic device, download or use the TikTok application or visit any TikTok website,” the news release says.

However, the executive order says some government bodies aren’t included in the ban, including Utah’s legislative and judicial branches, the attorney general’s office and the Utah Board of Higher Education, among others.

A spokesperson for the governor’s office said Monday the order applies to agencies that are directly supervised by the governor and that the ban “increases security of state agency networks and data.” A spokesperson for the Utah Attorney General’s office declined to comment on the ban.

Utah higher education institutions are also exempt, meaning state universities can continue to use the platform. Accounts for University of Utah teams have large followings on TikTok, including the university’s gymnastics team and the Utes football account.

The governor’s office indicated the reason for banning the app was over security concerns because the app’s owner, ByteDance, is headquartered in China. According to the news release, Chinese law allows the government to force companies in the country to provide it with data, which could include user information for users in Utah and the United States.

“China’s access to data collected by TikTok presents a threat to our cybersecurity,” Cox said in a news release Monday. “As a result, we’ve deleted our TikTok account and ordered the same on all state-owned devices. We must protect Utahns and make sure that the people of Utah can trust the state’s security systems.”

In a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune, a TikTok spokesperson said, “We’re disappointed that so many states are jumping on the bandwagon to enact policies based on unfounded, politically charged falsehoods about TikTok.”

“It is unfortunate that the many state agencies, offices, and universities on TikTok in those states will no longer be able to use it to build communities and connect with constituents,” said Jamal Brown, a company spokesperson, in an email Monday.

A spokesperson from the Utah Senate said they share Cox’s concerns about digital security.

“[Senate President Stuart Adams] plans to have conversations with his colleagues to see if similar actions should be implemented in the legislative branch. The Senate has never had an official TikTok account,” the spokesperson said.

Utah is the latest state to ban the app from government devices. Texas banned the use of the app last week, following similar TikTok bans in Maryland, South Carolina and South Dakota.

Last week, Indiana sued TikTok, alleging there was “salacious and inappropriate content” on the app that was available for children and that the app mislead users about the security of their data, The Associated Press reported.

Some Utah state entities have large followings on TikTok, most notably the Utah Department of Transportation, which has over 123,000 followers on the app. Last week, a video of Utah snowplows garnered over 3 million views. By around 10 a.m. on Monday, the video was no longer available on TikTok.

John Gleason, the director of public relations for the Utah Department of Transportation, said the now-deleted TikTok account allowed the department to reach different audiences. UDOT’s TikTok account was known across social media channels for its comical videos, featuring Shrek the ogre or a large alien, to help share road closures and other information.

Gleasons says though UDOT fully supports Cox’s decision, using TikTok showed the agency that people appreciate humor and light-hearted messaging. Communicating through a relaxed approach, he said, sometimes the message can be better delivered than through a more traditional form for audiences.

”It’s in our best interest to try to figure out the best way to share those messages so that they’re received,” he said. “We want to reach different audiences, young people, followers. This is information that can benefit all Utahns.”

So far, no plans for alternative platforms have been made, though Gleason notes they have a Twitter, Facebook and Instagram account and will try to experiment with those.

A TikTok account for the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources, which has more than 7,000 followers, was still on the app as of 11:30 a.m. Monday morning.

After Cox’s announcement, several Utah politicians voiced their support of the move. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said in a tweet, “This is the right move and will better protect sensitive data from getting into hands of the (Communist Chinese Party).”

Utah Rep. John Curtis, who represents Utah’s 3rd Congressional District, approved of Cox’s move in a tweet Monday morning, while 2nd Congressional District Rep. Chris Stewart thanked Cox in a tweet for taking action against the platform.

“I hope the rest of America follows Utah’s lead,” Stewart said.

Tribune journalist Palak Jayswal contributed to this story.