The UK has banned TikTok from government devices due to security concerns, following similar moves from the EU, Canadian and US administrations in recent months.
Oliver Dowden, the Cabinet Office secretary, told the House of Commons on Thursday that officials would be restricted from accessing certain social media apps, including TikTok, the Chinese-owned viral video platform that has rapidly grown in popularity in recent years.
“Given the particular risks around government devices, which may contain sensitive information, it is both prudent and proportionate to restrict the use of certain apps, particularly when it comes to apps where a large amount of data can be stored and accessed,” said Dowden, adding that it was a “precautionary move”.
The UK decision comes amid heightened tension between Western nations and China. TikTok is facing a complete ban in the US if its Beijing-based owners ByteDance do not sell their stake in the social media company, according to people familiar with the matter.
The social media network has faced growing concerns that the data it collects on users could be passed to the Chinese government and Communist party. Under local laws, Chinese companies may be compelled to disclose data to the state, as well as to restrict the transfer of sensitive information across borders.
TikTok has always maintained it would never transfer data to the Chinese government. The company said it was disappointed by the UK move. “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,” it 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.”
Dowden told MPs that, in addition to banning the use of TikTok, government departments would shift to a system whereby official devices would only be able to “access third-party apps that are on a preapproved list,” adding this system was already in place across many departments.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner accused the Conservative government of being “behind the curve” in comparison to other countries.
TikTok recently unveiled its plans to protect user data in Europe, dubbed “Project Clover”. It largely involves physically fencing off personal information by opening two data centres in Dublin, and a third in Norway, to store videos, messages and personal information generated by 150mn European users of the platform.
The social media group plans to start transferring user data this year to its new European locations and is expected to complete this process by 2024. It said it expected to spend €1.2bn annually on running the three data centres.
In December, the company revealed its staff in the US and China had inappropriately obtained the data of users, including a Financial Times journalist, in order to analyse their location as part of an internal leaks investigation. TikTok said the staff had now left the company.
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