UK drops TikTok on government phones as US warns of nationwide ban

TikTok will be banned from government phones and devices following security concerns. Geraint Vincent has the latest on what that could mean for the public

TikTok has been banned on government phones and devices following advice from cyber security experts - but ministers and officials will still be able to use the Chinese-owned app on their personal phones.

Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden announced the ban, which he said would be “good cyber hygiene”, with “immediate effect” on Thursday.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been under pressure from senior MPs to follow the US and EU in imposing the ban.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said Mr Dowden was “closing the stable door after the horse has bolted”.

A Chinese embassy spokesperson accused the Government of acting “based on its political motive rather than facts”.

TikTok, owned by Chinese internet company ByteDance, said it was “disappointed” with the decision and said bans were based on “fundamental misconceptions and driven by wider geopolitics”.

Explained in 60 seconds: The UK government's TikTok ban

Earlier on Thursday, Mr Dowden said the ban, criticised by TikTok, was “a prudent and proportionate step following advice from our cyber security experts”.

The ban – which is not being extended to members to the public – was being imposed over risks around how sensitive information can be accessed by TikTok.

The Cabinet Office said the move was being taken because TikTok users are required to hand over data including contacts, user content and geolocation data.

Mr Dowden said there will be “limited exemptions” on some government devices made on a “case by case basis” where the app is required for work purposes.

Oliver Dowden, Cabinet Office minister, announced the ban Credit: PA

TikTok said it was “disappointed with this decision”.

“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 spokesman 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.

“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.”

Why is the app not banned for the public?

Science and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan on Wednesday said the public can continue to use the app.

“In terms of the general public, it is absolutely a personal choice. But because we have the strongest data protection laws in the world, we are confident that the public can continue to use it,” she told the Commons.

TikTok has long said it does not share data with China but Chinese intelligence legislation requires firms to help the Communist Party when requested.

Critics fear the policy could expose western data to Beijing.

Parliament’s TikTok account was shut down last year after MPs raised concerns about the firm’s links to China.

But is may be banned for the US public

The move comes as the US is threatening a nationwide TikTok ban, unless Chinese owners sell their stakes in the popular social media app.

The US government's Committee on Foreign Investment, part of the Department of the Treasury, made the threat as it called for Beijing-based owners to divest, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

On Wednesday TikTok dismissed the move, saying it would not help protect national security.

Spokesperson Maureen Shanahan said: "If protecting national security is the objective, divestment doesn’t solve the problem: a change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access.

"The best way to address concerns about national security is with the transparent, US-based protection of US user data and systems, with robust third-party monitoring, vetting, and verification, which we are already implementing.”

The Wall Street Journal report cited anonymous “people familiar with the matter". The US Department of the Treasury and the White House’s National Security Council declined to comment.

Late last month, the White House gave all federal agencies 30 days to wipe TikTok off all government devices.

The Office of Management and Budget called the guidance a “critical step forward in addressing the risks presented by the app to sensitive government data.”

Some agencies already have restrictions in place.

The White House already does not allow TikTok on its devices. Congress passed the “No TikTok on Government Devices Act” in December.

The law does allow TikTok use in certain cases, including for national security, law enforcement and research purposes.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in both the House and Senate have been moving forward with legislation that would give the Biden administration more power to clamp down on TikTok.

Republican Mike McCaul, the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, has been a vocal critic of the app, saying the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is using it to “manipulate and monitor its users while it gobbles up Americans’ data to be used for their malign activities".

He said: “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.”

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

The social media giant has been dismissive of the ban for federal devices in the US and has noted that it is developing security and data privacy plans as part of the Biden administration’s ongoing national security review.

TikTok was also temporarily banned by the European Commission on phones used by its employees as a cybersecurity measure on Thursday, February 23.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know