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Rishi Sunak has indicated that the UK could follow the US and Canada in banning TikTok from government devices, saying he will take “whatever steps are necessary” to protect Britain’s security.
The prime minister said the UK was “looking at what our allies are doing” in the wake of the decision by other countries to remove TikTok from government phones amid fears over the social video app’s links to China. The European Commission and European parliament have also banned TikTok from staff devices.
Asked by ITV if the government was considering a ban, Sunak said: “We want to make sure that we protect the integrity and security of sensitive information. And we will always do that and take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that happens.”
In a further interview with the BBC, Sunak said: “We take security of our devices seriously.”
Earlier on Monday, TikTok said it would be “disappointed” if it was banned from UK government devices, after it was reported that ministers were about to do so.
TikTok said such moves were based on “misplaced fears”. The app is under pressure over its ownership by the Beijing-based ByteDance, with politicians on both sides of the Atlantic warning that the Chinese state could access its data or manipulate what people view on the app via its recommendation algorithm.
The Sunday Times reported that a review of TikTok had been carried out by the government security group, a team within the Cabinet Office, and that the National Cyber Security Centre had identified security risks related to the app.
A TikTok spokesperson said: “While we await details of any specific concerns the UK government may have, we would be disappointed by such a move. Similar decisions elsewhere have been based on misplaced fears and seemingly driven by wider geopolitics, but we remain committed to working with the government to address any concerns.”
The report said the ban would not apply to the personal devices of ministers and civil servants, though advice would be issued to explain the risks of using the app.
Hours before the Sunak interviews were broadcast, Downing Street had suggested no imminent changes were planned in the position on TikTok being installed on government phones.
The prime minister’s deputy official spokesperson said: “There’s no change … All departments have robust processes in place to ensure that IT devices are secure, including managing risks from third-party applications.”
Last week, TikTok gave further details of its plan to assuage the concerns of European governments about the security of the platform.
Entitled Project Clover, the framework includes the storage of user data on servers in Ireland and Norway at an annual cost of €1.2bn (£1.1bn), with any data transfers outside Europe being vetted by a third-party IT company.
The outlines of a security deal have been thrashed out in the US but the White House has not approved the arrangement, which includes the tech firm Oracle storing TikTok’s data and scrutinising its source code.
The US banned TikTok from federal government devices in December, and Canada and the EU’s executive arm followed suit last month.