After initially resisting calls to ban TikTok from government devices, the UK Government has now changed course, and announced an immediate ban of the Chinese-owned app on all Government employee phones.
The announcement brings TikTok into line with the EU, which enacted a ban of TikTok on Government devices last month, while the majority of US states have now also banned the app from Government-owned phones.
As reported by The Guardian:
“The UK decision follows a review of TikTok by government cybersecurity experts that began in November, and will cover ministers’ and civil servants’ work phones, but not their personal phones. [Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Dowden says] this is a ‘proportionate move based on a specific risk with government devices’.”
Amid rising global tensions, concerns around the Chinese-owned app, and the potential for it to be used as a spying device, have become more pressing, with many cybersecurity experts warning that TikTok could be used to track citizen movements, and monitor user activity.
And those reports do have precedent.
Late last year, it was revealed that representatives from TikTok’s parent company ByteDance had used TikTok data to track the movements of US journalists, in a bid to uncover which ByteDance employees may be leaking info to the press.
This is the key concern around the misuse of TikTok data, and in this context, the expanding bans of the app on government-owned devices makes sense, as that could be used as a vector to track people’s movements, and monitor who they’re meeting with.
For government employees, who may be in possession of sensitive information, there is a level of risk here, so it does make sense for officials to be raising the alarm, and taking action in this circumstance.
The question then is whether the TikTok bans should be expanded to all users, as is currently under consideration in the US. The latest on that front is that the White House is reportedly pressuring TikTok to be sold off from its Chinese owners if it wants to keep operating in the region.
That’s almost exactly what former President Donald Trump proposed back in 2020, which nearly saw TikTok sold to a consortium led by Oracle, before the incoming Biden Administration abandoned those plans.
Now, it seems TikTok is being forced to re-examine similar options – though it is worth noting that any sale of TikTok, as a Chinese asset, would also require approval from the Chinese Government, which has repeatedly expressed its disapproval of the various bans of the app.
TikTok, too, continues to voice its opposition to these actions. On the UK ban, a TikTok spokesperson said:
“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.”
Which, of course, is the response you might expect, but it is interesting to see TikTok making reference to geopolitical tensions, and invoking nationalistic fears, as a means to oppose the expanding bans.
Look, right now, there doesn’t seem to be a clear case for a full TikTok ban, as there wasn’t when the US initially proposed a ban under Trump in 2020. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t happen - and really, it feels like we’re very, very close to the edge on this, amid accusations of spying and international interference on several fronts.
The proposal to force TikTok into a sell-off, if the US Government does press this, could potentially secure billions in revenue for the company, and that seems like too much to leave behind for TikTok, if it comes down to it.
But again, the Chinese Government may look to make a statement instead, and resist western bullying.
In essence, it likely will come down to geopolitical tensions, one way or another, and those tensions do seem to be wearing thin right now.