The European Commission has banned its thousands of employees from using the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok on their work-related devices, citing cybersecurity concerns.
The move comes amid growing fears that Chinese tech firms are helping the government in Beijing collect troves of sensitive data around the world and its intelligence service is focusing on political targets, including in Brussels.
TikTok, the video-sharing app that is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance and rose to popularity during the pandemic, is under particularly intense scrutiny from legislators on both sides of the Atlantic, who suspect data from its users could be directly accessed by the Chinese Communist Party.
The platform has repeatedly denied these claims and defended its independence, despite a 2017 law that compels all Chinese companies, including international subsidiaries, to “support, assist and cooperate” with national intelligence efforts.
The Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) has been investigating TikTok’s data transfers to China and its compliance with the bloc’s privacy laws since September 2021.
Without making any reference to the Communist Party or the Irish probe, the European Commission announced on Thursday that it had suspended the use of TikTok on the “corporate devices” used by its staff, as well as “personal devices” that can be connected to its mobile service.
Over 32,000 permanent and contract employees are estimated to work for the Commission.
“This measure aims to protect the Commission against cybersecurity threats and actions which may be exploited for cyber-attacks,” the executive arm of the European Union said in a statement.
“The security developments of other social media platforms will also be kept under constant review”.
At a press briefing on Thursday afternoon, spokespeople for the Commission declined to comment on whether any specific security concern had prompted the decision or what sort of new development could warrant the lifting of the temporary suspension.
“We don’t make public why these decisions are taken, for obvious reasons,” a spokesperson said.
“This is a specific Commission decision. For the rest, it’s (up to) member states to issue any advice or recommendation or any other type of decision that they might see fit”.
Officials explained that staff had been given until March 15 to remove TikTok from their official devices and had been told they must also remove the app from their personal devices if they use these for work.
TikTok is the first app to be ever banned on the Commission’s work-related devices, a spokesperson said.
Hours later, an EU official said the secretariat of the EU Council, one of the bloc’s co-legislators, was “in the process” of introducing a similar measure for TikTok use.
“It will be uninstalling the application on corporate devices and requesting staff to uninstall it from personal mobile devices that have access to corporate services,” the official said.
A spokesperson from the European Parliament, the other co-legislator, said the institution had taken “due note” of the Commission’s statement but is yet to take a decision on the matter.
“Relevant services are also monitoring and assessing all possible data breaches related to the app and will consider the European Commission’s evaluation before formulating recommendations to the European Parliament authorities,” the spokesperson said in a statement to Euronews.
“For security reasons, we do not further comment on security matters.”
The prohibitions mirror one taken by the United States last year when the country banned TikTok on corporate devices used by the federal government, the most aggressive action taken so far against the app by the administration of President Joe Biden.
With US-China tensions flaring up over technology, trade, Taiwan and the Ukraine war, some American legislators have even floated the idea of a nationwide ban.
The Commission said however that it had not been under any pressure from Washington in making its own decision on the topic.
TikTok did not immediately respond to a Euronews Next request for comment.
“We are disappointed with this decision, which we believe to be misguided and based on fundamental misconceptions,” a spokesperson for the platform told Euractiv, which earlier reported the news.
“We have contacted the Commission to set the record straight and explain how we protect the data of the 125 million people across the EU who come to TikTok every month”.
‘There cannot be any doubt’
The suspension follows a series of developments that have thrust TikTok under the political spotlight.
In June last year, BuzzFeed revealed leaked audio from internal meetings that showed China-based employees of ByteDance had “repeatedly” accessed non-public data from American users, contradicting a sworn testimony from a TikTok executive before the US Senate.
Then, in November, TikTok admitted that the personal data of its European users could be accessed in the company’s Chinese headquarters, sparking new privacy concerns and espionage fears.
The following month, Forbes reported the app had been used to spy on journalists who were covering the company in a bid to track down their confidential sources.
TikTok condemned the data breach and fired four employees, two of whom were based in China.
In January, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew visited Brussels and met with several European Commissioners to discuss the persistent concerns and the bloc’s new digital regulation.
“I count on TikTok to fully execute its commitments to go the extra mile in respecting EU law and regaining trust of European regulators,” European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová said after the meeting with Chew, according to a short read-out.
“There cannot be any doubt that data of users in Europe are safe and not exposed to illegal access from third-country authorities”.
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