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Tik, Tok… are your systems in danger?

As the UK government bans TikTok from users' phones, should the powers-that-be stop at just one app?

Owned by ByteDance – originally founded in China – video app TikTok is stirring up suspicions that China's Government might be accessing personal data, especially when some of those users might work for other countries' governments.

"The security of sensitive government information must come first," remarked Oliver Dowden, the most senior minister in the Cabinet Office on announcing the UK ban. "The use of other data-extracting apps will be kept under review. Restricting the use of TikTok on government devices is a prudent and proportionate step."

This move was speedily followed by a ban on devices used on the UK Parliament estate and network at Westminster. The Scottish Government followed suit.

Further afield, the US has led a wave of bans on government devices, but it isn't alone. Canada, the European Commission and European Parliament and several EU member states have implemented bans. And the Biden administration is going further in trying to ban TikTok nationwide – which is being met with significant resistance.

France has taken a significantly different approach. The Ministère de la Transformation et de la Fonction Publiques recently banned a whole slew of 'recreational' applications from officials' devices, recognising that the dangers are not unique to TikTok.

Freedom of speech furore

The bans have been met with wildly varying responses – from some in the US seeing it as a breach of the First Amendment to others supporting a fightback against what is perceived as China's exploitation of social media for propaganda, espionage and even 'cognitive warfare'.

For its part, TikTok has vigorously defended its claim that it does not aid the Chinese Government. Its chief executive, Shou Zi Chew, endured a five-hour grilling by the US Congress without, it seems, changing many opinions.

In a response last November to the UK Government's Foreign Affairs Committee, the company pointed out that its data is mainly stored in the US and Singapore, with European datacentres coming online – with one in Norway attracting its own controversies.

What’s the real truth?

ByteDance is incorporated in the Cayman Islands, although there is a Chinese subsidiary, Beijing Douyin Information Service, and the firm admitted that global employees (including those in China) may be given access to TikTok data, but insisted that "employees of the entity Douyin Info Service do not have access to TikTok UK user personal data".

However, TikTok is not alone in gathering data about foreign nationals. For example, some are concerned about US government agencies' access to the private data of non-Americans.

"US-based social media firms face similar challenges regarding requests from US authorities to gain access to the personal data of social media firms," said security expert Brian Honan, CEO of BH Consulting.

"In particular, non-US citizens have very little protections when it comes to their personal data being accessed by US authorities.”

Banning apps is a blunt tool, and one that could have unfortunate consequences.

"There are genuine concerns regarding what the banning of apps will lead to," said Honan. "Will smartphone vendors be forced to remove apps from their stores depending on the countries the device is in and what apps have been banned in those countries? Will those vendors be forced to remove apps from devices? Will ISPs be required to block access websites?

“Many will argue that certain countries, such as China, already impose similar bans using the Great Firewall of China, but many democratic countries need to reflect on whether they want to implement similar restrictions which would go against the right to free speech that many of those same democratic countries claim to uphold."

It's time we talked about privacy

The TikTok saga could – and perhaps should – lead to a broader debate about data privacy.

"At the heart of the issue is the historical and continued monetisation and abuse of people's personal data by tech companies," said Honan.

"The smartphone manufacturers and vendors also share responsibility in this by not designing their operating systems to prevent the exploitation of people's usage of their devices by the app vendors.

“Whatever the outcome of the TikTok debate at least the controversy has sparked a larger debate over the privacy and human rights of people who use apps and the smart devices they are installed on."

Text by: Steve Mansfield-Devine

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