TikTok will not be safe until we can be sure our data is protected from China
Many of us parliamentarians have long worried about allegations that TikTok shares data with the Chinese Communist Party. I was therefore dismayed to discover that a parliamentary account had been created.
TikTok representatives have given the BEIS and DCMS Select Committees the impression, in both oral and written evidence, that there is nothing to worry about with data transfers and that data does not go to China. However, leaked audio files recently uncovered by a BuzzFeed News investigation seem to contradict this claim. The published leaks contain statements from TikTok employees indicating that engineers in China had access to data. In those recordings, an employee says: “Everything is seen in China”. In another, a director refers to a Beijing-based engineer as a “Master Admin” who “has access to everything.” These revelations are worrying. We cannot allow British users’ data to be harvested by hostile states.
The CCP already collects vast amount of data on its own people. From the surveillance and oppression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang to the social credit system being implemented more widely, my concern is that Beijing might seek to replicate this data-gathering effort internationally and build a database of foreign citizens too.
I am glad that Liz Truss, the frontrunner in the leadership contest, has said of TikTok that “We absolutely should be cracking down on those types of companies, and we should be limiting the amount of technology exports we do to authoritarian regimes.”
We cannot allow British users’ data to be harvested by hostile states
But this just shows why of all institutions, I was astonished that Parliament would be the one to create an account. Given the fact that the company’s representatives have potentially misled parliamentary committees and given the number of colleagues on both sides of both chambers concerned about TikTok, this account should never have been created in the first place. The CCP has sanctioned British MPs so it is absurd to think that TikTok should be endorsed by Parliament.
I therefore wrote, with fellow CCP-sanctioned parliamentarians, to the Speakers of both Houses of Parliament, Lord McFall and Sir Lindsay Hoyle, asking for this account to be shut down. I am delighted that the Speakers took swift and decisive action to do so with immediate effect. Parliament has deemed TikTok to be unsafe and the Speakers’ response must be commended.
But this is not the end of the story. TikTok and its parent company ByteDance’s exact position is still unclear. We must now establish whether or not their representatives have misled the BEIS Select Committee. The assurances they gave the committee must be closely examined in light of the BuzzFeed News investigation.
Until they can give a cast iron guarantee that no data – not just user data – will ever be shared with China, it cannot be considered a safe platform. Unfortunately, Chinese law means that they cannot offer this guarantee since any data accessed from China is vulnerable to state interference. Further recent revelations have shown that their own PR guide tells them to “Downplay the parent company ByteDance, downplay the China association.” This does not inspire confidence.
A few years ago, a former TikTok employee also said that the company censored content critical of the CCP, particularly Uyghur-related content, further illustrating how the regime can exploit such tools to control international narratives.
I am therefore delighted that Sir Lindsay Hoyle and Lord McFall have taken the important decision to shut down the Parliamentary TikTok account. There is still work to be done, but this is certainly a step in the right direction.
Nusrat Ghani is the Conservative MP for Wealden.
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