The UK banned TikTok from government phones with immediate effect over security fears, the latest restriction imposed on the Chinese-owned social media app after similar moves by the US and European Union.
The decision was made after a review concluded that there “could be a risk around how sensitive government data is accessed and used by certain platforms,” Cabinet Office Secretary Oliver Dowden said Thursday. Dowden told the House of Commons that the ban was a “precautionary move.”
The move is a further sign that western nations are concerned about the potential risk to national security risk posed by TikTok and its Chinese parent, ByteDance Ltd. The US Congress last year restricted the app on government devices, and European Commission employees were told to delete it by March 15.
The US told Bytedance’s Chinese owners to sell their shares in the parent company or risk a wider ban in the country, Bloomberg reported Thursday.
Just weeks ago the UK’s Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan told Politico that the UK wouldn’t follow its allies by banning TikTok, adding that usage is a “personal choice.”
A TikTok spokesman said the company was disappointed with the decision, and pointed to the government’s description of the ban as “precautionary” rather than being prompted by specific evidence.
“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,” the 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.”
As part of the restriction, government devices will also now only be able to access third-party apps on a pre-approved list, Dowden said.
The TikTok veto, which Dowden described as “good cyber hygiene,” won’t be extended to personal devices for government employees, ministers and the public. There is only limited use of TikTok across government, Dowden said.
Some government ministers and departments — including Energy Secretary Grant Shapps and the Ministry of Defence — regularly use TikTok to communicate with the public. Shapps has never used the app on a government device, a person close to him said. Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt told the News Agents podcast on Thursday that he has deleted it from his phone.
“Restricting the use of TikTok on government devices is a prudent and proportionate step following advice from our cyber security experts,” Dowden said. “The use of other data-extracting apps will be kept under review.”
Exemptions for TikTok’s use on government devices will be granted by security teams on a case-by-case basis for employees who work in relevant enforcement roles, or in roles examining online harms, the Cabinet Office said.