A Government ban on TikTok should be extended, senior Tories and experts have warned, over fears the app could be used for surveillance.

Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden today introduced a ban on Government employees downloading the video-sharing app onto their work phones “with immediate effect”, but it won’t not apply to civil servants’ personal phones.

Former Conservative defence minister Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Select Committee, questioned why the Government had not brought the ban in earlier over concerns around data security on the Chinese-owned platform.

“We can no longer turn a blind eye to how Beijing obliges all its tech companies to share data with the military in order to enhance surveillance and control of the state,” Mr Ellwood told i.

Ex-Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a prominent China hawk, called for the ban to be extended to Government workers’ personal devices, as Tory MP Alicia Kearns, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, warned of TikTok’s “ability to act as a data Trojan Horse”.

The scope of the veto – on government devices only – led one former senior UK diplomat in Beijing to call for an all-out ban to guard against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) threat.

Charles Parton, an expert on China who spent 22 years as an adviser in the Foreign Office, conceded that a UK-wide ban such as one imposed in India was “not practical” but “in a sensible world” should be imposed as “the dangers of these forms of Chinese technology” are “a threat to our freedoms and values”.

Mr Ellwood said: “I did call for this some days ago. It is puzzling, in the spirit of the five eyes community, that we did not join Canada and the US in advancing more robust stance regarding TikTok at the same time.

“As Beijing becomes increasingly assertive on the international stage, we should no longer assume there is any distinction between Chinese companies’ domestic focus and their internationally facing operations.”

File photo dated 14/05/19 of the chairman of the Commons Defence Committee Tobias Ellwood, who has said The UK has not done enough to stand up to Iran. PA Photo. Issue date: Monday January 16, 2023. Speaking to Times Radio on Monday following the state execution of British-Iranian Alireza Akbari, the Conservative MP agreed that Iran will become more of a strategic threat to the UK. See PA story POLITICS Iran. Photo credit should read: Yui Mok/PA Wire
Chairman of the Commons Defence Committee Tobias Ellwood questioned why the ban on the video-sharing app was not imposed earlier (Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire)

The video-sharing platform has proved popular with some MPs including former health secretary Matt Hancock, who has more than 180,000 followers.

After Mr Dowden’s Commons statement, Energy Secretary Grant Shapps, who has 14,000 followers on the app, took inspiration from Leonardo DiCaprio’s Wolf of Wall Street character and posted a clip from the film where he declares “I’m not f***ing leaving” to his account after Mr Dowden’s statement.

“This morning the government announced a TikTok ban on government devices. That’s sensible,” he captioned the video. “I’ve never used TikTok on goverment devices and can hereby confirm I will NOT be leaving TikTok anytime soon.”

TikTok banned on Government devices after ‘months of deliberation’

Whitehall sources told i that the decision to ban the app from all government devices was taken after months of deliberation, but insisted it was not due to any single event or the result of a leak.

Ministers have been looking into a ban since November, and the Government Security Group, which sits within the Cabinet Office, advised that because the app collects data and its connection to China, the decision was taken to ban it from sensitive devices as a “precaution”.

One source said that ministers can have access to sensitive government papers on their government issued phones, meaning they were at greater risk from the app.

But they said the government ban was not extended to ministers’ and officials’ personal devices as they do not have access to sensitive documents, therefore the risk was low.

The source added that most government departments’ TikTok accounts were no longer active, with No 10’s account not used since Rishi Sunak entered Downing St.

Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries took a different view, tweeting: “My phone is personal. Today I removed TikTok and I think all MPs should do likewise #justmypersonalopinion.”

Mr Parton, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), said: “I don’t think a politician would want to upset all the young voters in the country [with a blanket ban], so we have to live with that.

“I think it’s very sensible to ban it from civil servants and I think civil servants in Government are well-advised not to have it on their personal phones as well.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 19: Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith speaks as he hosts the press conference for Bob Chan on October 19, 2022 in London, United Kingdom. Bob Chan was dragged into consulate grounds and beaten up during a gathering in front of China's Consulate in Manchester. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith has called for a ban on TikTok usage on Government phones to be extended to private devices (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Sir Iain called on the Government to “not stop there” and raised concerns about private phones that weren’t covered by the ban being used for official business as well as the threat posed by Hikvision cameras, a company with close links to the CCP.

He tweeted: “TikTok ban on Govt devices is a start, but the ban should extend to private phones of Govt Ministers/Snr Officials too.

“Also, the use of Hikvision cameras (Chinese state-owned surveillance) which should all be removed from sensitive Government sites’ owing to security concerns.”

Ms Kearns, another leading China-sceptic, told i the decision to ban TikTok on government devices and create a pre-approved app list was “a welcome, precautionary move”.

“TikTok’s ability to act as a data Trojan Horse remains a concern, as is our continued acceptance of data exploiting technologies on our streets and in our pockets,” she added.

“This move will go some way to protect our Government from spyware, and a state which will stop at nothing to steal our data and infiltrate us to make us vulnerable. Today must be the start of a national discussion about the importance of our data with the public.”

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 but should be judged on facts and treated equally to our competitors.”

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