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MPs Face TikTok Ban On Government Devices But Critics Say It's "Too Little, Too Late"

A row has developed between the government and a group of MPs over the security risks posed by TikTok (Alamy)

6 min read

The government is set to ban TikTok on government devices after a security review is believed to have identified data risks associated with the Chinese-owned company.

The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) assessed the short video social media app and have now identified risks to sensitive information, according to the Sunday Times. Details of the perceived risks, however, remain unclear. 

It is expected that advice will be issued to ministers, MPs, staff and civil servants to explain the risks associated with TikTok, but the government will not tell individuals to delete the app from personal devices. 

row has been ongoing in Westminster over the use of TikTok by MPs and ministers, with a number of senior Conservative MPs calling for an outright ban on government devices to be implemented.

The app is popular with many MPs at all levels, including energy secretary Grant Shapps, who described it as an “immensely valuable” tool to communicate with the public, and insisted he will not be “chased off” the platform by its critics.

Conservative MP Ben Bradley, a prolific TikTok user, previously told PoliticsHome that he did not have any security concerns about the app because he didn't feel he had compromising information available to him.

“Certainly as a backbencher I don't feel like I have access to a great deal of information that will be of interest to the Chinese government," he said. "It's not something that worries me.”

TikTok is owned by parent company Bytedance, which is headquartered in China, while TikTok itself is registered in the Cayman Islands.

Chinese ownership is at the centre of concerns surrounding the app, with critics citing a national security law which compels Chinese companies to give information to Chinese intelligence agencies if asked to.

TikTok, however, categorically denies that it has ever – or would ever – hand over data to the Chinese government.

In February, technology secretary Michelle Donelan told Politico that “as a Conservative” she believes it should be a “personal choice” whether to use TikTok, indicating that MPs are unlikely to be discouraged from using the app from their personal phones, even if a ban on using it on government devices is in place. 

But former Conservative Party leader and leading China ‘hawk’ Iain Duncan-Smith does not think a ban on government-issued devices alone would go far enough.

“They should extend the ban to ministers’ private phones,” he told PoliticsHome. “It’s logical, after all they use their private phones from their desks.”

Alicia Kearns, Conservative MP and chair of the foreign affairs select committee, suggested she would rather all MPs stopped using the app, even on personal devices, but said she “would welcome with relief a ban on government officials and parliamentary staff installing TikTok on any mobile phones utilised for work, if not any device”.

"Personally, I most certainly will not be using the app and giving away my personal data to a tool which could be the People's Republic of China's Trojan Horse,” she told PoliticsHome. 

“Colleagues will need to reflect that no-one is 'not of interest."

Kearns added that “significant questions” remain around the possibility of TikTok acting as a “data Trojan horse” suggesting it presented a threat while disguising itself as a legitimate app to be used by Westerners.

"As a country for too long we've slept walked into becoming bedfellows with data exploiting technologies," she said. "The government needs to recognise it has a duty to protect our people from the acquisition of our personal data by hostile states.”

The MP described TikTok as an “indirect arm of the Chinese Community Party” and wants a “national discussion” around the importance of data security. 

Responding to Kearns' description of the platform's links with the CCP, a TikTok spokesperson said: "This is categorically untrue. TikTok is happy to be judged on facts and evidence, not baseless claims."

The fact that the government appears to be starting to acknowledge that a risk exists from TikTok is a departure from the guidance issued by GCHQ to date. 

The webpage of guidance for MPs and staff on social media use from GCHQ was last updated in 2019 and does not include any mention of TikTok. The app has exponentially risen in popularity in the years since.

Multiple MPs have told PoliticsHome they are not aware that they have received any app-specific cybersecurity advice from the government or the GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).

Although a possible ban and updated guidance has been at least partially welcomed by those wary of China, some critics believe other nations and organisations have been ahead of the curve, with the UK playing catch-up. 

Luke de Pulford, a human rights campaigner who coordinates the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, said the recommendation is “another example of the UK’s 'too little too late' approach towards Beijing”.

“There are questions surrounding data security with profound implications for the UK which need to be taken seriously," he told PoliticsHome.

“Instead of facing up to these challenges, the UK appears to be doing the bare minimum yet again. It took us two years to get any movement on TikTok, in spite of the clear dangers identified in 2020.

“Rather than treading on eggshells for fear of upsetting Beijing, the UK government should insist on robust data protection standards, especially where there is a risk that UK data might fall into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”

TikTok said they would be "disappointed" if a ban were to take place and criticised the similar decisions taken by other countries and EU bodies.

A TikTok spokesperson said: "While we await details of any specific concerns the UK government may have, we would be disappointed by such a move.

"Similar decisions elsewhere have been based on misplaced fears and seemingly driven by wider geopolitics, but we remain committed to working with the government to address any concerns.

"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 Cabinet Office declined to comment on whether a ban on government devices will take place, whether new guidance on TikTok will be given to MPs and staff, or any details on the reported review by the NCSC.

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