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This is a developing story and may be updated.
This story was updated Dec 19, 2022 at 3:34 p.m.
Citing concerns over a possible cybersecurity breach, West Virginia Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, sent a letter to Gov. Jim Justice, requesting a ban on downloading the Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat apps to all state issued cell phones, laptops and other devices.
Before any word from Justice, State Auditor J.B. McCuskey, working with Weld, has issued his own departmental TikTok ban.
“That’s due to the fact that there are a significant amount of security concerns as a result of the companies that own those two apps,” Weld said. “Those two companies are owned by extremely large Chinese tech firms and there have been some concerns regarding the security of information collected by those apps.”
Weld, who is the chair of the Senate Military Committee and former Air Force intelligence officer, said the sites pose a threat of a cyber attack on both the nation and the state.
“Under Chinese law, the government has the authority to demand that those two companies give to them all the data that they’ve collected through the people that download and use those apps on their phones or tablets, whatever,” Weld said.
In a press release issued just after noon Monday, McKuskey mandated a TikTok ban on state government devices and all computer networks associated with the Auditor’s Office. The ban includes government issued devices used by WV Oasis, which is the central repository for all the state’s financial data, including payroll, and devices within the many departments of the State Auditor’s Office.
McKuskey said in the release that the Auditor’s Office functions as the chief information officer for the state. He said this move will serve to protect the state’s core financial infrastructure from intrusion by those who wish to harm us.
“I am so thankful to work with Senator Weld on this incredibly important initiative,” McCuskey said. “We have seen the threat that China and its government poses to our critical infrastructure and this move is a proactive approach to protect the taxpayers of West Virginia.”
In the release, McCuskey also said that he and Weld are preparing legislation that prohibits nations of concern from acquiring property through the West Virginia property tax sale process. He said there have already been instances where countries from this list, which includes Russia, China and North Korea, are harming American interests through this process.
Weld said 16 states and several federal agencies have already enacted a TikTok ban.
“A ban for the same federal level cell phones and other devices passed the U.S. Senate last week,” Weld said. “A number of federal agencies, the Department of State Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, as well as several federal contractors like Lockheed Martin, they’ve already banned their employees from having those apps on their phones.”
The federal TikTok phone ban has been supported by both the Trump and Biden administrations. Weld said the TikTok app has been downloaded more than 100 million times in the United States. There was no mention on the West Virginia level of banning TikTok on any private cell phones, laptops or other devices.
Late Monday afternoon, the Governor’s office responded to Weld’s request with this statement:
“The Governor understands and shares Senator Weld’s concerns as they relate to our state’s cybersecurity resiliency, and especially his concern of foreign influence. The good news is there are policies and procedures already in place which are designed to protect our state networks from cyber threats related to Chinese-owned TikTok and related apps. Josh Spence, our Chief Information Officer, and his team constantly monitor and implement cybersecurity policies and technical controls to mitigate cyber risk, protecting government-owned devices and the network as a whole. TikTok has already been blocked on state networks for many months, and the use of additional security controls further mitigates the risk. The Governor has confidence in his cybersecurity team to protect our state networks from cyber threats and to communicate best practices to cybersecurity teams across other branches of state and local government. It’s important to keep in mind that TikTok is hardly the only threat—there are millions of cyber events targeting the state from all over the world thwarted each year by our cybersecurity team.”