The UK parliament on Wednesday closed its TikTok account just one week after it was launched after a group of MPs and peers placed under sanctions by China raised concerns that the regime in Beijing used the social media app as spyware.
Senior parliamentarians, including former Conservative party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith and Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs select committee, wrote to the speakers of the House of Commons and Lords late last month, just after the account went live, warning them of “considerable” data security risks because of TikTok’s Chinese-owner ByteDance.
The move is the latest blow to TikTok, which has repeatedly faced scrutiny and pressure from western governments over claims it has links to the Chinese government.
TikTok has repeatedly denied sharing any US or UK data with the Chinese authorities but has been under increasing pressure from legislators in both countries to provide robust evidence of how it protects this data.
The group of parliamentarians who raised concerns, which included former children’s minister Tim Loughton, were part of a cohort of politicians, academics and lawyers hit with sanctions by China last year for their criticism of internment camps in Xinjiang.
The letter argued that the data security risks associated with the app were “considerable” and urged parliament to remove the account. “We cannot and should not legitimise the use of an app which has been described by tech experts as “essentially Chinese government spyware”, it said.
Writing in response, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, speaker of the House of Commons and Lord John McFall, the speaker of the Lords, said that they were not consulted on plans for the pilot launch and confirmed that the account would be closed with “immediate effect”.
A parliamentary spokesperson said the decision had been taken “based on member feedback”, adding: “The account was a pilot initiative while we tested the platform as a way of reaching younger audiences with relevant content about parliament.”
The company said it was disappointing that parliament would “no longer be able to connect with the millions of people who use TikTok in the UK” and offered to “reassure” any MPs who raised concerns, as well as “clarify any inaccuracies about our platform”.
European user data, including from UK users, is stored using TikTok servers in the US and Singapore, where detailed personal information is easily accessed by Chinese employees, according to multiple sources at the company.
TikTok stressed that access to data for employees globally, including engineers in China, was limited.
Theo Bertram, vice-president of government relations at TikTok Europe, told the UK government committee last October that rules governing access were “strictly controlled”. He added: “You can access data only if you have the right permissions to access that data, and only for a limited time and only for the correct data that you need to access.”
TikTok has plans to open a data storage centre in Dublin in 2023 to eventually store this data.
TikTok has been working to reassure western legislators about a threat to national security if private user information is accessible by China. In June, the company changed its default storage for US users’ data to Oracle cloud servers, based in Texas, but said it was still using its own US and Singapore servers for back-up.
TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew said in a letter to US senators in June that the back-up would eventually be fully transferred to Oracle servers and the previous backups would be deleted. But the company said that Chinese staff still had access to “non-sensitive” US user data like public comments and videos.