TikTok Banned from UK Government Devices amid National Security Concerns

Published on
16/03/2023 03:53 PM
Tiktok ban UK

UK Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Dowden has announced TikTok will be banned from government devices with immediate effect, citing fears for national security.

In a statement to parliament, Mr Dowen said the ban a was “precautionary” but “prudent” move following a review by the National Cyber Security Centre. 

He added that while TikTok use is "limited" – banning it was key to good cyber "hygiene" – bringing the UK in line with many other governments worldwide.

The Cabinet Office said it took the move because TikTok users are currently forced to hand over data including contacts, user content and geolocation data.

It comes after the US government wiped TikTok from all federal devices late last month due to similar fears, also putting a ban on all apps created by the video-sharing app's parent company, ByteDance.

The Chinese-owned Btedance has come under increasing scrutiny over its security and handling of sensitive data, with concerns it could be used to promote pro-Beijing views or gather sensitive user data. 

“The security of sensitive government information must come first," Mr Dowden told MPs. He stressed that the government was not avising against the public’s use of TikTok for personal capacity. 

"This ban applies to government corporate devices within ministerial and non-ministerial departments, but it will not extend to personal devices for government employees or ministers or the general public. 

That is because, as I have outlined, this is a proportionate move based on a specific risk with government devices," Mr Dowden added. 

A ban “driven by wider geopolitics”

TikTok said it was disappointed about the ban, blaming global, geopolitical tensions for causing government misconceptions about its security and data privacy. 

"These bans have been based on fundamental misconceptions and driven by wider geopolitics, in which TikTok, and our millions of users in the UK, play no part, a spokesperson said. 

"We remain committed to working with the government to address any concerns but should be judged on facts and treated equally to our competitors.

"We have begun implementing a comprehensive plan to further protect our European user data, which includes storing UK user data in our European data centres and tightening data access controls, including third-party independent oversight of our approach."

The ban will likely anger Beijing, which has previously accused the US of spreading disinformation and suppressing Tiktok amid reports the White House is calling for its Chinese owners to sell off their stakes in the firm. 

A Foreign Ministry spokesperson said previously of the US decision that it demonstrated insecurity and was an "abuse of state power".

This Chinese perspective comes from the belief that Western powers are pursuing a policy of "containment" towards it - in other words, they are self-consciously seeking to prevent the country from growing and developing because they object to an ascendant China in theory.

Interestingly, both Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) have TikTok accounts - and the MoD uploaded a video of a Challenger 2 tank being supplied to Ukraine just hours before the ban was announced. 

It said it would continue to use TikTok among a "wide range of digital channels to promote the work of the Armed Forces and to communicate our support to Ukraine"

"Robust processes are in place to ensure our devices are secure, including managing risks from third-party applications. Our most sensitive information is held on a separate system," a spokesperson added.

The UK's parliament shut down its own account last year after multiple MPs raised concerns about the firm's links to China and potential data collection techniques. 

Beijing’s Bytedance 

While TikTok has continuously refuted claims that it is sharing data with Beijing, Chinese intelligence legislation requires all firms to help the communist party upon request.

Critics warn that this policy could lead to the data of western political leaders being exposed to Beijing as tensions heighten. 

In December last year, the New York Times found that four  Bytedance employees based in the US and China had accessed geolocation data to track a handful of western reporters' movements in an effort to track leaks. 

ByteDance and TikTok had initially categorically denied the allegations when they were first reported, claiming the company “could not monitor US users in the way the article suggested”, and added that TikTok had never been used to “target” any “members of the US government, activists, public figures or journalists”. Those claims are now acknowledged to be false.

They looked at the IP addresses of journalists who were using the TikTok app to learn if they were in the same location as employees suspected of leaking confidential information. 

The four employees were hastily fired, and officials from Bytedance said it would take additional steps to protect users’ data.

To read more about data security, visit our dedicated Data Management Page.

Critics have also claimed that Beijing is using the platform to promote Beijing ideology and remove user content criticising the Chinese government. 

A US TikTokker recently shared a video criticising China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims only for it to be taken down by TikTok moderators. TikTok said this was a mistake.

The Chinese state demands loyalty from all businesses based in the country, and to what extent ByteDance may be pushed to comply with demands for data remains unclear.

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