U.K. Bans TikTok on Government Devices
Britain on Thursday became the latest Western country to prohibit the use of TikTok on “government devices,” citing security fears linked to the video-sharing app’s ownership by a Chinese company.
Speaking in Parliament, Oliver Dowden, a senior cabinet minister, announced the ban with immediate effect, describing it as “precautionary,” even though the United States, the European Union’s executive arm, Canada and India had already taken similar steps. New Zealand did so on Friday.
Social media apps collect and store “huge amounts of user data including contacts, user content and geolocation data on government devices that data can be sensitive,” Mr. Dowden said, but TikTok has aroused more suspicion than most because of its owner, the Chinese company ByteDance.
Britain’s actions reflect fears expressed across a variety of Western governments that TikTok might share sensitive data from devices used by politicians and senior officials with the government in Beijing.
The ban announced on Thursday follows a hardening of policy in Britain. On Monday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described China as an “epoch-defining challenge” to the international order.
The new instruction applies only to the official work phones of government officials, and it was described by Mr. Dowden as a proportionate approach to addressing a potential vulnerability of government data.
TikTok has long insisted that it does not pass on information to the Chinese government. In a statement on Thursday, TikTok said it was disappointed with the British government’s decision, saying that the bans imposed on it were “based on fundamental misconceptions and driven by wider geopolitics.” It added that it was taking steps to protect British users’ data.
In the United States, the White House told federal agencies on Feb. 27 that they had 30 days to delete the app from government devices. More than two dozen states have banned TikTok on government-issued devices, and a significant number of colleges have blocked it from campus Wi-Fi networks. The app has been banned for three years on U.S. government devices used by the Army, the Marine Corps, the Air Force and the Coast Guard.
On Wednesday, TikTok said the Biden administration was toughening its stance about addressing national security concerns, telling the company that it would need to sell the app or face a possible ban.
Several British government departments have TikTok accounts as part of their public outreach, including the country’s defense ministry, and as recently as one day ago, Michelle Donelan, the secretary of state for science, innovation and technology, said the app was safe for British people to use.
“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 lawmakers in Parliament.
China has featured prominently in an updated security review published by the government, although Mr. Sunak’s toughened language failed to satisfy all the hawks in his Conservative Party, including one of its former leaders, Iain Duncan Smith.
Mr. Duncan Smith questioned whether the British government officially considered China to be a threat, and on Thursday, while he praised the action against TikTok, he called for the ban to be extended to private devices belonging to government officials.
That followed a decision by China in December to withdraw six of its diplomats from Britain, after a diplomatic standoff between London and Beijing in the wake of a violent clash during a pro-democracy demonstration at the Chinese Consulate in the northern city of Manchester.
The British authorities had asked six Chinese diplomats to waive their official immunity to allow police to investigate how a protester from Hong Kong was injured after being dragged onto the consulate grounds and beaten on Oct. 16.
Instead, China decided to repatriate the six officials, including one of its senior diplomats, the consul general, Zheng Xiyuan, who had denied beating a protester, without denying involvement in the incident.
Adam Satariano and Natasha Frost contributed reporting.