News | Published August 04 2020

China Research Group calls for TikTok security probe

The China Research Group of Conservative MPs has urged the government to task security services with a review into influential app TikTok before its Chinese parent company, Bytedance, makes a decision over whether to base its headquarters in the UK.

US president Donald Trump has threatened to ban the app in his country, which has forced Bytedance to rethink its initial plans to base its headquarters in New York or California, where TikTok currently has office premises.

The China Research Group’s co-founder, Harborough MP Neil O’Brien, now wants UK intelligence services to publish a report into the issue.

Trump has given TikTok’s owners an ultimatum to sell its American business to a stateside company to allow it to operate in the US.

The president said: "I set a date of around September 15, at which point it's going to be out of business in the United States...unless Microsoft or somebody else is able to buy it and work out a deal."

Microsoft is one company that is in talks to purchase TikTok’s service in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Trump is also keen for a “very substantial portion” of any sale price to go to the US Treasury on the basis that his government is “making it possible for this deal to happen”.

In a statement, Bytedance said that in response it was “evaluating the possibility of establishing TikTok's headquarters outside of the US, to better serve our global users”.

London, Dublin and Singapore are all reported to be under consideration as alternatives.

A spokesperson for the prime minister said that Boris Johnson had not spoken with Trump regarding the TikTok issue, and that any decision to establish a UK base would be a “commercial” choice made by Bytedance.

However, the China Research Group has its reservations, having already pressured the government into changing its stance on Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network.

O’Brien has said that he is not opposed to TikTok basing its headquarters in London, but called for a “deep dive” into the app before any decision is made.

He told the BBC: "It would be useful for the government to use the kind of specialists in cyber-security that only it has access to, to give us a definitive view of whether the app is safe.

“[If it is] we should welcome investment by TikTok in the country.

"But if there are problems, as some media reports have suggested, with either political interference in its algorithms and the content that's shown, or about where the data is ending up and a lack of security - well that would raise a whole bunch of other questions."

Meanwhile, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former Conservative Party chair and incumbent chairman of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, is quoted by The Times as saying: "We are playing silly games over this, trying to persuade ourselves that we are able to run a risk-free involvement with these companies. Bytedance is every bit as unreliable as Huawei."

TikTok has said that it stores data from international users on servers based in the US and Singapore, which keeps it separate from users in mainland China.

TikTok has also insisted that it strictly adheres to local laws wherever it operates.

GCHQ is believed to have raised two concerns over the app, including over whether the app could be used to expose its users to certain political content.

Furthermore, although TikTok's data on international users is not sent back to China, there are concerns that nothing could prevent it from doing so should Beijing invoke its National Intelligence Law, which means that Chinese citizens must “support, assist and cooperate” with the nation’s intelligence services and keep the activity secret.

Such action could lead to Chinese security services having full access to all of the data the app holds on its international users.

These concerns will be weighed up against the commercial benefit of having TikTok’s headquarters based in the UK, and the potential for such a move in helping rebuild bridges with Beijing following the Huawei decision and tensions over circumstances in Hong Kong.

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Authored by

Alexander Bridge-Wilkinson
Junior Editor
August 04 2020

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