TikTok banned by BBC on staff phones as Ireland mulls government prohibition

The TikTok ban on staff phones at one of the world’s most respected broadcasters is an escalation of the social platform’s growing credibility problem in western security circles.

TikTok faces a growing number of bans in Europe

Adrian Weckler

The BBC has become the first major English-language broadcasting firm to ask staff to remove TokTok from company devices.

The move comes after the UK government, US government and European Commission banned the social media platform from staff smartphones, with the British government saying it represented “good security hygiene”.

Asked how it could encourage continued engagement with its own TikTok channel of 1.2m followers, a BBC spokesperson said that it was giving security advice to staff with sensitive work-related information on their phones, as opposed to a general warning about TikTok’s safety.

"The decision is based on concerns raised by government authorities worldwide regarding data privacy and security,” the broadcaster said in an email to staff, as first reported in The Sunday Times.

"If the device is a BBC corporate device, and you do not need TikTok for business reasons, TikTok should be deleted from the BBC corporate mobile device."

Despite the BBC’s hair-splitting on the reasons behind the ban, it may be seen as further evidence of a nascent trend among large organisations and government bodies to limit any access that TikTok has on corporate or staff phones.

While TikTok’s Chinese parent firm, Bytedance, has repeatedly denied any access or influence from authorities in Beijing over the social media firm’s data gathering processes or algorithms, some western governments remain unconvinced.

Belgium, Canada and New Zealand recently joined the group of governments limiting TikTok’s availability on staff phones.

In Ireland, the National Cyber Security Centre is currently conducting a review of TikTok to brief the Minister for Justice on whether it should be taken off government devices. As reported previously in the Irish Independent, that review has involved direct talks with the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon.

Authorities say that a lack of Chinese government transparency over access to company data remains a legitimate cause for concern among western administrations and organisations with sensitive data held on smartphones.

Two weeks ago, TikTok’s most senior European policy director, Theo Bertram, told the Irish Independent that it is “sensible” for the Irish National Cyber Security Centre to vet the security of the popular social media platform.

However, he insisted that the company has been “caught up” in geopolitics.

“We can't change the geopolitics between the US and China, and we get caught up in that,” he said. “I think that's often because there's a misperception about our ownership or structure. We’re sometimes a proxy, a political football. And it's a lot easier to give us a kicking.”

The Irish DPC currently has two investigations into TikTok in process, including a probe into whether data is being improperly sent to China, home of TikTok’s parent firm, Bytedance. Commissioner Helen Dixon said that a draft decision on the investigation is expected in the coming months.

GDPR law places restrictions on the transfer of personal data from the EU to regimes that do not protect privacy to the same standard as the EU.

Mr Bertram said that current activity around potential bans would not affect the company’s 3,000 jobs in Ireland, or the development of a second data centre here.

TikTok, which is the most-used social media app among Irish teenagers, came under fire last year for unlawfully accessing US user data from China, something it said it does not normally do.

TikTok is headquartered in Singapore, while its parent company, Bytedance, has its global head office in Beijing. However, executives insist that the social media platform operates an entirely different structure to its Chinese sibling.

Mr Bertram described accusations of TikTok being Chinese as a “myth” that feeds “geopolitical” hostility against it in some Western countries.

“I think that people do have serious concerns about the Chinese government, the Chinese state, the actions it has taken on human rights and its general engagement with the world,” he said.

“But we're not Chinese. We're a global private company. Our founder [Zhang Yiming] was Chinese but we can't change that. No one on our board is a member of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]. Our CEO [Shou Zi Chew] is often wrongly described as a Chinese national, but he’s a Singaporean who spent most of his early life in the UK and the US. Liang Rubo [CEO of TikTok parent Bytedance] is based in Singapore, not China. It’s a similar story for others in the leadership team, including Cormac Keenan, who leads the global trust and safety team based in Dublin.”

He denied that Chinese authorities have a ‘golden share’ in the social media platform, saying that Beijing’s mandatory stake in a Chinese subsidiary of TikTok’s parent company, Bytedance, is not the same as a role in TikTok’s structure or activity.