A TikTok ban is a lot more complicated than just shutting down the app

Two states that banned TikTok used the company's tracking pixel on state websites.

Chris Helgren / reuters

Disentangling ourselves from TikTok is more complicated than simply banning the app, just ask the state of Maryland. According to a new report in The Wall Street Journal, it’s one of several states that used TikTok’s tracking pixel on a government website despite a statewide ban barring TikTok-related software from official devices and networks.

According to the report, Maryland was one of 27 states that had code for TikTok’s tracking pixel embedded in an official government website. While these types of tools are extremely common — tracking pixels help online advertisers target their ads — their use has also been widely criticized by privacy advocates.

In Maryland’s case, the TikTok pixels were reportedly found on a state-run COVID website and were related to an ad campaign from last year. Likewise, TikTok’s pixel was also found on a website run by Utah's Department of Workforce Services, which told The Wall Street Journal the pixel was used for an ad campaign targeting job seekers. Like Maryland, Utah has also banned TikTok from government devices.

The report underscores how, even with bans in place, governments are finding it difficult to disentangle themselves from TikTok completely. The company is currently grappling with the threat of a nationwide ban in the United States if parent company ByteDance doesn’t divest its stake in the service. CEO Shou Zi Chew is set to testify in a Congressional hearing on Thursday, when he will make the case that banning the app would hurt its 150 million American users.

Elsewhere, a new report in Forbes highlighted other issues that a nationwide ban may not fully resolve. According to the report, the personal data of TikTok users from India is still accessible to TikTok and ByteDance employees, despite the country banning the app in 2020. Forbes points out that this is likely due to the terms of India’s ban, which apparently “did not seem to call for deletion of app data that had already been captured and stored.”

Even so, it’s not the first time security experts have questioned whether it would ever be possible to “claw back” TikTok user data that’s already been collected by the company. In an odd way, that may make it a bit easier for TikTok to argue that an outright ban would be less effective than its multibillion-dollar plan to impose strict data controls and other measures meant to lock down US user data. That plan, known as Project Texas, has so far failed to persuade lawmakers and the Treasury Department officials involved in the years-long negotiations with TikTok.

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