Why has the UK banned TikTok from government phones?

Credit: AP

By Elaine McCallig, ITV News Digital Content Producer, and Lewis Denison, Westminster Producer

The UK has banned TikTok on government phones, amid security concerns about use of the Chinese-owned app.

Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden confirmed reports that ministers, such as avid user Grant Shapps, would no longer be able to use the social media app.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been under pressure from senior MPs to follow the US and EU in banning the social media app from government devices.

TikTok said bans have been based on “misplaced fears and seemingly driven by wider geopolitics”, saying it would be “disappointed by such a move” in the UK.

Rishi Sunak initially refused to confirm reports that a ban is imminent, but he told ITV News during a visit to the US - which has already banned the app on government phones - that he will do whatever is necessary to protect the UK.

The prime minister said he "of course" he looks at what other allies are doing - and some of the UK's biggest; Canada, Australia, the European Union, as well as the USA, decided some time ago that the risks outweigh the benefits.

Asked if a ban was coming, the PM said he does not routinely comment on such matters but added: "We do take very seriously the use of government IT and we of course look at what our allies are doing in the space."

Sunak on whether the UK will ban TikTok on government devices:

"There are established guidelines in place which we obviously continually make sure are appropriate."

He went on to say the UK always takes note of what its allies are doing and will "take whatever steps are necessary" to protect the integrity of sensitive information.

While ministers and civil servants won't be forced to delete the app from their personal devices, they will be issued with advice on the risks it could carry.

Top ministers such as Business Secretary Grant Shapps are frequent users of the app and there are concerns its links to the Chinese state could cause a security risk.

Security minister Tom Tugendhat, who previously urged Parliament to delete its TikTok account before it eventually did, said "we need to make sure that we're careful as to what we have on our phones to make sure we're not turning very important part of communication technology into a piece of spying technology".

Security Minister Tom Tugendhat explains his concerns about TikTok

TikTok held meetings with the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), an arm of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) - which is investigating it - recently in a bid to allay security concerns.

Mr Tugendhat told ITV News he's asked the NCSC to look into TikTok amid concerns the UK is falling behinds its allies.

Asked if he was comfortable about Cabinet members such as Mr Shapps using the app, the minister said: "I wouldn't have asked the National Cyber Security Centre to look at this unless I had concerns."

What are the UK's closest Western allies doing about TikTok?

The European Commission announced recently that TikTok is temporarily banned from employees' phones as a cybersecurity measure.

The EU’s action follows similar moves in the US, where more than half of the states and Congress have banned TikTok from official government devices.

The White House gave federal agencies 30 days to remove TikTok from federal devices.

The guidance has been referred to as a “critical step forward in addressing the risks presented by the app to sensitive government data" by the Office of Management and Budget.

Canada's chief information officer found the app “presents an unacceptable level of risk to privacy and security," in a investigation that led to the platform being banned on Canadian government devices.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he suspects businesses and individuals in Canada may now "reflect on the security of their own data and perhaps make choices" in the wake of the ban on federal devices.

“I’m always a fan of giving Canadians the information for them to make the right decisions for them,” he added.

Canadian Treasury Board President Mona Fortier said the federal government will also block the app from being downloaded on official devices in the future. “On a mobile device, TikTok’s data collection methods provide considerable access to the contents of the phone,” Fortier said.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly previously stated that the UK would not "just copy other governments".

Asked if the UK is considering a possible security threat posed by the app, the Tory MP said the government considers security threats from "all kinds of directions and vectors".

"We have very robust procedures to protect government digital devices," he said.

Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Kyle said he is "personally deeply concerned about the way TikTok operates as a programme and also its ownership model".

The Labour MP for Hove added that he has "complete faith" in the UK's intelligence services.

"I personally have deleted TikTok from my phone. I'm not comfortable having that app on my phone," he said.

He added: "The government needs to be totally on top of the latest intelligence and if you have to make a choice, towards a cautious choice."

A government spokesperson previously told ITV News: "All departments have robust processes in place to ensure government IT devices are secure, including managing risks from third party applications."

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How are other governments reacting to TikTok fears?

The Danish parliament has urged those within the 179-member assembly against having TikTok on work phones as a cybersecurity measure, saying “there is a risk of espionage.”

Danish parliamentary Speaker Soren Gade said that an email had been sent out to lawmakers and employees with "a strong recommendation that you delete the TikTok app if you have previously installed it.”

In Norway, which isn't a member of the 27-nation EU, the justice minister was forced to apologise last month for failing to disclose that she had installed TikTok on her government-issued phone.

In the US, some agencies, including the Departments of Defence, Homeland Security and State, already have restrictions in place, and the White House already does not allow TikTok on its devices.

Congress passed the “No TikTok on Government Devices Act” in December as part of a sweeping government funding package. The legislation does allow for TikTok use in certain cases - including for national security, law enforcement, and research purposes.

Rep. Mike McCaul compared the app to a 'spy balloon' on peoples' phones. Credit: AP

The US has made steps to move forward with a bill that would give Biden the power to ban TikTok nationwide. The bill, proposed by Rep. Mike McCaul, would allow the administration to ban not only TikTok but any software applications that threaten national security.

McCaul, the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, has been a vocal critic of the app, saying it is being used by the Chinese Communist Party to “manipulate and monitor its users while it gobbles up Americans’ data to be used for their malign activities.” “Anyone with TikTok downloaded on their device has given the CCP a backdoor to all their personal information. It’s a spy balloon into your phone,” the Texas Republican said in a statement on Monday.

TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said: “The ban of TikTok on federal devices passed in December without any deliberation, and unfortunately that approach has served as a blueprint for other world governments. These bans are little more than political theatre."

Why are there concerns about TikTok?

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company that moved its headquarters to Singapore.

It has been targeted by critics who say the Chinese government could access user data, such as browsing history and location.

The app remains extremely popular and is used by two-thirds of teens in the US.

But both the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission in the US have warned that TikTok user data could be shared with China’s authoritarian government. US officials also worry that the Chinese government might use TikTok to push pro-China narratives or misinformation.

TikTok has questioned the bans, saying it has not been given an opportunity to answer questions and governments were cutting themselves off from a platform beloved by millions.

Responding to Canada's ban, a TikTok spokesperson said: “It’s curious that the Government of Canada has moved to block TikTok on government-issued devices-without citing any specific security concern or contacting us with questions-only after similar bans were introduced in the EU and the US.

"We are always available to meet with our government officials to discuss how we protect the privacy and security of Canadians, but singling out TikTok in this way does nothing to achieve that shared goal. All it does is prevent officials from reaching the public on a platform loved by millions of Canadians."

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