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Britain is to ban the Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok from ministers’ and civil servants’ mobile phones, bringing the UK in line with the US and the European Commission and reflecting deteriorating relations with Beijing.
The decision marks a sharp U-turn from the UK’s previous position and came a few hours after TikTok said its owner, ByteDance, had been told by Washington to sell the app or face a possible ban in the country.
The UK government’s announcement was made on Thursday by Oliver Dowden, the Cabinet Office minister, in the Commons. He said the ban was taking place “with immediate effect’”.
The decision follows a review of TikTok by government cybersecurity experts at the National Cyber Security Centre, and will cover ministers’ and civil servants’ work phones, but not their personal phones. “This is a proportionate move based on a specific risk with government devices,” Dowden added.
At least two cabinet ministers use TikTok. Michelle Donelan, the science and technology secretary, and Grant Shapps, the energy security and net zero secretary have an account on the app, which is used by millions of young people and many celebrities and influencers.
The decision marks a sharp reverse from the UK’s previously relaxed position, bringing the UK in line with the US government and the European Commission, both of which announced similar bans on TikTok in the past month, and it demonstrates how fast western trust in China and TikTok has deteriorated in recent months.
The government said TikTok required users to give permission for the app to access data stored on the device, which is then collected and stored by the company. Allowing such permissions gives the company access to a range of data, including contacts, user content, and geolocation data. Dowden said this justified the ban.
A TikTok spokesperson said the company was disappointed with the 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. We remain committed to working with the government to address any concerns.”
The company said it had begun work on “a comprehensive plan” to protect European user data, including storing UK user data in its European data centres and including third-party independent oversight of its approach. TikTok has acknowledged that UK personal data goes abroad, including to China, for its global staff to undertake certain “important functions”.
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