On Wednesday, Montana became the first U.S. state to ban TikTok over concerns about the cybersecurity of the Chinese app.
While experts see the ban as having a limited impact on use of the social-media platform in the state, it could produce a “domino effect” in other states that may lead to an outright, nationwide ban.
The federal government and U.S. intelligence agencies have in the past expressed concerns about the app being used by the Chinese government to spy on American citizens. The technology company has denied this is the case and said it would defend users’ access.
Signing the bill into law, Montana’s Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte said the state had taken “the most decisive action of any state to protect Montanans’ private data and sensitive personal information from being harvested by the Chinese Communist Party.” The law is due to come into effect on January 1, 2024.
In a statement, TikTok argued that the law infringes First Amendment rights, and the ban is expected to face legal challenges.
“We want to reassure Montanans that they can continue using TikTok to express themselves, earn a living, and find community as we continue working to defend the rights of our users inside and outside of Montana,” it said.
The new law in Montana will not ban users who already have the app from using it, but will prohibit new downloads through fines for those that offer it—for example, an app store or TikTok itself.
However, experts say this could easily be circumvented by users with a virtual private network or by changing the location settings of their device.
“I don’t think it’s going to affect anybody’s ability to download TikTok in Montana,” one senior cybersecurity industry source told Newsweek on the condition of anonymity.
“At best, they’re going to be forcing [companies] like Google and Apple to essentially introduce another step in their process which creates a geographic filter depending on where they are.
“Now, they’ve already got those geographic filters, so I suppose it could be enforceable—but I think it’s so easy to get around it’s practically meaningless.”
Another cybersecurity expert, who also wished to remain anonymous, confirmed this, noting that while a nationwide ban was “easily done,” it was “not possible to enforce something like that at a regional level.”
While the senior cybersecurity source described the ban as little more than “saber-rattling,” they noted: “Once a state has taken a stand on something and it becomes a media talking point, then eventually it ends up at a federal level. It just takes for a number of dominos to fall, and you’ll have a de facto ban.”
Rebecca Grant, a national security analyst at IRIS Independent Research, told Newsweek that “any TikTok ban is a plus for U.S. national security.”
Even though Montana “is just one state,” she said: “I like the precedent that it sets, that this is now a political, elected governor that is signing this bill that bans TikTok.”
Grant added: “If there are other states that are considering this legislation, then Montana being first out of the gate sets a good precedent—and certainly, this is an app we can live without from a national security perspective.”
The prohibition follows a similar ban on federal government devices earlier this year. The House Foreign Affairs Committee is planning to bring in legislation that would grant the president the authority to ban the app from all U.S. devices.
In February, the White House directed employees of federal agencies to remove the app from work devices, as part of what it said was an “ongoing commitment to securing our digital infrastructure and protecting the American people’s security and privacy.”
A national intelligence law implemented in China in 2017 compels companies to cooperate with its state intelligence services. TikTok has said it would not hand over data if asked.
Newsweek approached TikTok via email for comment on Thursday.
Americans are becoming increasingly suspicious of China, which was found to be responsible by U.S. defense officials for a suspected spy balloon that flew over U.S. in February—a claim its government denied.
A poll by the Pew Research Center in April found that 83 percent of U.S. adults had a negative view of China, with the same number considering the nation’s growing technological power a serious problem.
The senior cybersecurity source said China has “got form,” referencing allegations by the FBI in 2018 that Huawei, another Chinese technology firm, may have been spying on U.S. citizens, offering equipment that could be used to monitor critical defense communications. Other nations, such as the U.K., have ended deals with the company over national security concerns.
“China doesn’t seem to understand that if they keep abusing their power as the manufacturing center of the world, countries like America and European countries will have no choice but to stop allowing it to happen,” the source said.
Newsweek reached out on Thursday to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs via email for comment.