Phone with TikTok app in the House of Commons

TikTok banned on UK government phones

Image credit: Canva

The UK government has imposed an immediate ban on the use of TikTok on government phones, citing security concerns over the Chinese-owned video app.

Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden has announced that TikTok will be banned from government devices. However, ministers and officials in the UK will still be able to use the Chinese-owned app on their personal phones.

"The security of sensitive government information must come first, so today we are banning this app on government devices," Dowden said. "The use of other data-extracting apps will be kept under review."

Over recent months, TikTok has come under increasing scrutiny over its handling of user data. Several public administrations have raised concerns over the possibility that TikTok-owner ByteDance will be asked to share its data with the Chinese government, undermining Western security interests.

The United States, Canada, Belgium and the European Commission have already banned the app from official devices.

"Restricting the use of TikTok on government devices is a prudent and proportionate step following advice from our cyber-security experts," Dowden said.

TikTok responded to the announcement, saying it was disappointed with the decision and had already begun taking steps to further protect European user data.

"We believe 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 TikTok 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.”

Meanwhile, China said the decision was based on political considerations rather than facts.

The move "interferes with the normal operations of relevant companies in the UK and will ultimately only harm the UK's own interests", its embassy in London said in a statement.

The move follows weeks of pressure on UK prime minister Rishi Sunak to impose the ban. Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner backed the move, but said "once again the government is late to the game".

British government departments and ministers have been increasingly using TikTok and other platforms to communicate with voters.

Energy minster Grant Shapps said the ban on government devices was sensible, but he would stay on the platform on his personal phone. He posted a video to the app showing a clip from the movie 'Wolf of Wall Street' in which Leonardo DiCaprio's character says "I'm not f****** leaving", and "The show goes on".

However, some ministers, including Conservative former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, have demanded that ministers and senior civil servants should be told to remove TikTok from their personal phones as well.

“Private phones are used for communications and I honestly don’t believe that, whatever the complaints are, that the reality is that these private phones will never be used for government business," he said. 

Nadine Dorries, a frequent poster on TikTok, said she had deleted the app from her phone and urged MPs to follow her example. 

Meanwhile, Britain's Ministry of Defence posted a video on TikTok shortly before the ban was announced, showing how the British army was training Ukrainian forces to use the Challenger 2 battle tank.

The Cabinet Office said the ban on government phones was taken because TikTok users are required to hand over a vast tranche of personal data, including contacts, messages, photos, videos, audio, web browsing history and geolocation data. None of this data is required for the TikTok app to function. Apps such as TikTok that send out large amounts of personal data from a user's device are commonly referred to as 'leakware' or 'greyware'. 

This data is believed to be sent by the TikTok app to its servers, located in the US and Singapore, from where it can be accessed by ByteDance Group employees in other countries, including Brazil, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea.

In addition to the numerous countries and the 31 individual states in the US which have adopted a ban on TikTok, some companies are also considering imposing similar measures in order to protect their corporate data. 

Ismael Valenzuela, vice president of threat research and intelligence at BlackBerry, said many information security officers (CISOs) are now considering banning the use of TikTok on company devices. 

"I suspect that only a limited number of CISOs are aware of TikTok's privacy policy statement," Valenzuela said. "While attacks on the supply chain are a real concern today, privacy risk should also be a top priority for CISOs of high-risk organisations. This is because personal data on company executives and other important individuals can be of great value in the hands of financially motivated attackers or the state.”

TikTok has always insisted that it does not share data with China. However, Chinese intelligence legislation requires firms to help the Communist Party when requested.

Last December, the US proposed legislation that would “block and prohibit all transactions” in the US by social media companies with at least one million monthly users that are based in, or under the “substantial influence” of, countries that are considered foreign adversaries, including China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela.

The bill specifically named TikTok and its parent company ByteDance. 

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