Being the obedient little sidekick that it is, the UK government this week took measures to curb the alleged threat posed by TikTok.

Nick Wood

March 17, 2023

4 Min Read
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Being the obedient little sidekick that it is, the UK government this week took measures to curb the alleged threat posed by TikTok.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Dowden on Thursday introduced what he called a “precautionary” ban on the use of the social video app on government devices. He highlighted that TikTok requires permission to access data stored on the user’s device, including contacts, user content, and geolocation data. With TikTok being owned by China-based ByteDance, there are concerns that the app risks exposing potentially sensitive data to the Chinese government.

“The security of sensitive government information must come first, so today we are banning this app on government devices. The use of other data-extracting apps will be kept under review,” Dowden said. “Restricting the use of TikTok on government devices is a prudent and proportionate step following advice from our cyber security experts.”

The decision brings the UK into line with the European Union, which implemented a similar ban in February, and the US, which late last month (PDF) gave federal agencies 30 days to purge TikTok from government devices.

The UK falling into line with its allies was welcomed by IT and cybersecurity experts.

“It is reasonable to expect that social media linked to a non-allied state should not be on the devices of government officials. Building public trust in technology is vital at this time, when the apps we use every day are so closely linked to geopolitics,” said Rashik Parmar, group chief executive of BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, in a statement.

“The ByteDance policy of harvesting the data you put into the app (personal details, or metadata embedded in videos) is significant for groups of people entrusted with sensitive information on a professional basis,” added Lisa Forte of BCS’s information security specialist group. “It is right for the UK to look to limit or restrict certain groups having the app on their work phones, as other countries are doing.”

Ross Brewer, chief revenue officer at US-based cybersecurity firm SimSpace, said the ban is a “‘wake up and smell the coffee moment'” for the public.

“The everyday citizen needs to understand that the way they use technology can not only impact them but can also lead to their family, friends and employer being put at risk,” he warned.

“The move by the UK government to ban TikTok on government-issued devices is an acknowledgement of the high volume of intelligence that is being gathered by foreign nations and criminal gangs,” he said. “The geopolitical environment in Europe has exposed the world to what those working in intelligence and cybersecurity have known for decades. Countries like Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are prepared to go far beyond acceptable operating norms to achieve their goals.”

Unsurprisingly, TikTok maintains its innocence. Theo Bertrum, TikTok’s vice president of public policy, Europe, on Thursday Tweeted his disappointment at the UK’s decision.

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“The government say[s] it is precautionary and not based on any actual incident. It appears to us to be driven by wider geopolitics, in which TikTok and our users play no part,” he said.

He insisted that TikTok doesn’t collect more data compared to other apps – often it is less. He claimed that TikTok is not a Chinese company, neither is its parent, and it doesn’t operate in China either. He also said data gathered by TikTok is stored on servers in the US and Singapore, and that Beijing cannot compel another country to hand that data over.

“We have begun implementing Project Clover, a comprehensive plan to further protect our user data, including storing UK user data in our European data centres and tightening data access controls, including third-party independent oversight of our approach,” he added.

Despite TikTok’s protestations and assurances, it seems there is little chance of the bans being lifted. In fact, quite the opposite seems the more likely outcome.

On Wednesday, sources cited by The Wall Street Journal (paywall) claimed the Biden administration has threatened to ban TikTok from the country entirely unless its Chinese owners sell their stakes in the company.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew responded in a separate WSJ article in which he said divestment wouldn’t address the US’s concerns.

“A change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access,” he said.

Chew is due to argue his case directly to the US government next Thursday in a testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Chances are his arguments will fall on deaf ears though. With anti-China sentiment running high, fear far outweighs evidence when it comes to influencing policy.


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About the Author(s)

Nick Wood

Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.

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