TikTok bans: UK at risk of ‘lagging behind’ EU, US

TikTok bans: UK at risk of ‘lagging behind’ EU, US
Опубликовано: Friday, 24 February 2023 13:54

Britain runs ‘risk of being marooned as tech security laggard,’ leading MP says.

The British government is facing renewed scrutiny over its stance on Chinese-owned platform TikTok now that both its ex and supposed best friend have banned the social media app from official devices.

On Thursday, both the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, and the Council of the EU, representing member state governments, banned staff from using TikTok on work phones. The decisions followed a U.S. move in December to prohibit the app for all federal government devices.

London has not followed in the footsteps of Washington, with whom it often boasts to have a "special relationship," despite repeated warnings from security experts and many British lawmakers. Thursday’s move by the European Union — traditionally slow in imposing hard-line security measures — only heightens the pressure.

"We run the risk of being marooned as a tech security laggard among free and open nations" by not acting on TikTok, said Alicia Kearns, a Conservative lawmaker and chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, flagging security risks and risks of data leaking to a hostile state as main concerns.

Chinese intelligence legislation requires firms, including big data tech companies, to assist the Communist Party and its intelligence services when requested. That could expose vast amounts of data all over the world to Chinese snooping, Western security officials and China critics have warned. TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance, has repeatedly denied that it poses a security risk.

"The government needs to review its policies and move to ban government officials and parliamentary staff from installing the app on any mobile phones utilized for work, if not any device," said Kearns.

Though some, including the British parliament as an institution, have stopped using the popular social media platform in the U.K., many MPs and ministers still run their own accounts in a bid to reach younger constituents, especially ahead of the election set for next year.

When asked about the EU moves on Thursday, a spokesperson for U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said it is up to "individual ministers and departments" to decide which social media platforms to use to communicate with the public. "I’m conscious that there are some ministers who use TikTok, but it’s ultimately for individual departments and ministers to decide," the spokesperson said.

A government spokesman said: "All departments have robust processes in place to ensure government IT devices are secure, including managing risks from third-party applications."

In or out?

TikTok is actively lobbying in and around Westminster to prevent political pushback on its app. Its General Counsel Erich Andersen planning a briefing on March 6 to explain the company’s steps to "ensure the integrity of our platform," according to a text message seen by POLITICO.

The social media site in recent years managed to penetrate Westminster politics. But it has also hit walls with politicians and institutions.

The official TikTok account for No. 10 Downing Street was created in May 2022 under then-PM Boris Johnson — but it has apparently not been used since his departure last fall.

The British parliament shut down its own account last year due to security concerns after Beijing slapped sanctions on MPs in retaliation for sanctions against Chinese officials over human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Others have been more cavalier in the use of the app. Grant Shapps, the current energy security minister who has held several different Cabinet positions under the last few PMs, is one of the most TikTok-savvy members of government. He has accumulated more than 147,000 likes, occasionally shooting videos by himself such as during Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to Westminster. (Shapps, who uploaded his latest TikTok video just hours before the EU ban became public, was contacted for comment.)

Iain Duncan Smith, another Tory MP and co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, agreed that the U.K. is now "lagging behind." "The problem is that, even when their Western security operatives show that TikTok poses a security risk to us in the U.K., we seem to drag our feet, trying not to take action that might upset China," he said.

Duncan Smith called on Sunak to change course and "own up to the danger China poses and take action immediately on TikTok."

British intelligence chiefs, while increasingly critical of the threats posed by China, have shied away from a strong public position on TikTok.

"No, I wouldn’t [stop children from using TikTok], but I would speak to my child about the way in which they think about their personal data on their device," Jeremy Fleming, head of GCHQ, told the BBC last year. "Make the most of that, make those videos, use TikTok — but just think before you do."

That is not an assessment shared by the EU — nor by Washington.

"We, the FBI, do have national security concerns about the app," FBI Director Chris Wray said last year when asked about TikTok. "They have essentially access to the software to devices. So you’re talking about millions of devices and that gives them the ability to engage in different kinds of malicious cyber activity through that."

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