Security experts and tech watchers have called the UK government’s ban on using TikTok on official devices “irrational” and based on little more than geopolitics.
Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden announced a ban on using the shortform video app on official government devices in the House of Commons on Thursday. It comes after the United States has reportedly told TikTok’s Chinese owners, ByteDance, that it must sell its shares in the company, or face being banned in the country.
Dowden said the UK ban was “a proportionate move based on a specific risk with government devices”.
Similar bans on staff devices have also been announced by the European Commission, Canada and the United States. Dozens of US states have also banned employees from using TikTok on any devices issued to them for work.
But the bans seem motivated by something other than security risks, say experts in the field.
“It seems frankly irrational to single out this one app, based not on its technical capabilities but on global geopolitics,” said Heather Burns, the author of the book Understanding Privacy and a technology policy expert of more than 20 years’ standing.
Burns toldi that TikTok was a drop in the ocean compared to the data collection practices of big tech in general. “The commercial partnerships between adtech providers and data brokers mean that there are tens of thousands of active surveillance trackers on the work and home devices of government employees, including trackers accessible to foreign governments.”
TikTok has offices in London and Dublin, as well as the United States, but was originally developed by ByteDance, a company which operates out of Beijing. The company is domiciled in the Cayman Islands.
Research published earlier this year by the Internet Governance Project at Georgia Institute of Technology found no evidence of security risks posed by TikTok. Robyn Caplan, a senior researcher at US tech non-profit Data & Society, toldi that anything that opened the door to a country-wide ban was “concerning”.
Caplan did point out that a government-device ban could seem “slightly proportional to the fears that emerged from what was discovered about TikTok employees tracking journalists.” Earlier this year, it was revealed that a TikTok employees had tracked journalists using the app – which the company claims was the actions of a small number of rogue employees. “The rest does not seem proportional at all,” said Caplan.
Other experts questioned quite how much information TikTok could glean from users even, if it were possible that the company provided data to the Chinese state, that could not exist elsewhere.
“I’m not sure government devices matter to TikTok or anyone,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, Robertson professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. Data experts have previously pointed out that were TikTok banned outright, the Chinese government, should it want to obtain information about western social media users, could simply buy access to information collected through other US-based apps via a raft of data brokers.
Vaidhyanathan also points out that the number of government devices is vanishingly small compared to TikTok’s ballooning userbase, which would be the real security risk if China were to want to access users. “How many government devices are there? And who cares if government workers use TikTok on them? TikTok has billions of users and that’s growing,” said Vaidhyanathan. “No one is banning TikTok from personal devices, and that’s what matters.”
A TikTok spokesperson said: “We are disappointed with this 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 but should be judged on facts and treated equally to our competitors.
“We have begun implementing a comprehensive plan to further protect our European user data, which includes storing UK user data in our European data centres and tightening data access controls, including third-party independent oversight of our approach.”
The National Cyber Security Centre and the Cabinet Office have both repeatedly previously declined to comment about a potential TikTok ban. The Cabinet Office refused to answer questions about whether, if TikTok was not safe for use on government devices, it was also unsafe for use by journalists and everyday users.
The decision was unsurprising for some, however. “We’ve seen this develop over time and in different jurisdictions,” said Dom Hallas, executive director of Coadec, the policy voice for tech startups in the UK. “The reality is we trust the security services to do their assessment. I’m not privy to the evidence that they have available to them.”
Hallas told i that the decision may not solely be based on a live concern about TikTok, but could instead be part of a wider recalculation around Chinese tech, and its role in our society.