TikTok’s CEO faced a grilling in the United States Congress on Thursday as a growing number of governments ban the app from official devices.
The video-sharing app was banned from UK Government phones last week, and that has now been extended to all parliamentary devices and networks. The Scottish Government has announced a similar ban.
The EU has imposed a similar ban on staff devices, as have a number of individual European countries, the US, Canada and New Zealand.
The concerns around TikTok are centred around it being owned by Chinese company ByteDance. There are fears ByteDance could share users’ data with the Chinese government.
Where has TikTok been banned?
TikTok has been banned on government devices in the following countries:
- the Netherlands
- New Zealand
- United States
The European Parliament, European Commission, and the EU Council have also banned the app on staff devices.
India banned TikTok completely back in 2020 over security fears, following a clash between Indian and Chinese troops at the Himalayan border. The app is also banned in Afghanistan.
Announcing the ban on UK government devices last week, Cabinet Office minister, Oliver Dowden, said it amounted to “good cyber hygiene” amid a risk to “sensitive Government data”.
“The security of sensitive government information must come first, so today we are banning this app on government devices. The use of other data-extracting apps will be kept under review,” he said.
A spokesman for Parliament on Thursday said TikTok “will be blocked from all parliamentary devices and the wider parliamentary network”.
“Cyber security is a top priority for Parliament, however we do not comment on specific details of our cyber or physical security controls, policies or incidents,” they added.
Noted political TikTokers such as the Energy Security Secretary, Grant Shapps, will be able to continue using the app on their personal phones’ data, but will be blocked from accessing it on parliamentary Wi-Fi.
Could TikTok be banned from the public?
The UK Government has no plans to ban TikTok for the general public. Michelle Donelan, the Science and Technology Secretary, told MPs last week the public could continue using the app.
“It is absolutely a personal choice,” she said. “But because we have the strongest data protection laws in the world, we are confident that the public can continue to use it.”
However, there is a chance it could be banned in the US. TikTok said last week that President Joe Biden’s administration demanded its Chinese owners divest their stakes or face a potential ban.
The company’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, faced heavy criticism during the US Congress hearing on Thursday.
“TikTok collects nearly every data point imaginable – from people’s location to what they type and copy, who they talk to, to biometric data and more,” said Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Republican Chair of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, at the start of the hearing.
“We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values – values for freedom, human rights and innovation,” she said, adding that the Chinese Communist Party “is able to use it as a tool to manipulate America”.
Mr Chew, who highlighted his Singaporean roots, attempted to underline the app’s independence from China, saying: “TikTok itself is not available in mainland China, we’re headquartered in Los Angeles and Singapore, and we have 7,000 employees in the US today.”
He said the company was “committed” to keeping TikTok “free from any manipulation by any government” and added: “We do not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government”.
Mr Chew also faced questions about the potential harm the app can cause to the mental health of teenagers.
Is TikTok safe to use?
As a company based in China, ByteDance is required to share user data with the authorities if requested.
TikTok has often insisted it is not sharing data with the Chinese government, but it is unclear how it would be able to resist if requested to do so.
The app’s data sharing has been the subject of a number of investigations. A BuzzFeed report from June 2022, based on leaked recordings of internal TikTok meetings, revealed how China-based ByteDance employees accessed non-public data about US TikTok users.
A TikTok spokesperson responded by saying the company had talked openly about its attempts to limit employees’ access to US user data, and BuzzFeed’s report showed TikTok was “doing what it said it was going to”.
TikTok harvests a significant amount of data from its users in order to optimise their “For You” pages with its algorithm.
As soon as you start using TikTok, the company starts building a profile about you, including everything from your hobbies to your political leanings.
As internet security company NordVPN explains, there are two main issues people may have with this.
“First is a first principles issue. Should a corporation have that kind of insight into your personal life? Are you comfortable with TikTok assessing and deducing (often with remarkable accuracy) your sexuality, political leanings, or health conditions?” it says.
“The second problem is a more practical one. When large corporations gather huge quantities of data about their users, it only takes one data breach for that information to fall into the wrong hands. Hackers are eager to steal valuable data from online businesses, and there’s no guarantee that social media giants are actually capable of keeping your private details safe.”
Ultimately, it is up to individual users to decide how comfortable they are sharing their data with companies like TikTok, and to understand the potential risks around it.