UK TikTok ban provides us all cause to think about social media safety

The UK ban on installing and using social media app TikTok on government units brings our nation’s policy according to that of different jurisdictions including the US and member states of the European Union.

Announced yesterday in the House of Commons by Oliver Dowden, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the ban covers units in ministerial and non-ministerial departments, and is a precautionary move that has not been taken in response to any specific incident or menace.

It’s the newest step in an extended-operating feud between the West and China over knowledge privacy points, that apart from TikTok has drawn in the likes of Hikvision, a manufacturer of IP surveillance cameras, and most famously, networking and comms big Huawei, which discovered itself banned from the UK’s core communications infrastructure in 2020.

All of these instances arise from considerations shared by Britain, the US and other Western states. Broadly speaking, these considerations centre on the likelihood that the Chinese language authorities could possibly extract delicate knowledge from these corporations for espionage purposes.

China has an extended historical past of commercial espionage, and its state-backed cyber operations are extensively acknowledged as a particularly dangerous menace, so these considerations aren’t wholly unjustified, and it’s not a stretch to think about how Beijing might exploit the private knowledge of UK government officials ought to it fall into their palms. In mild of this, Chris Vaughan, vice-president of technical account management at Tanium, stated it’s no surprise to see Westminster following within the footsteps of Brussels and Washington DC.

“Chinese intelligence techniques are often targeted on longer-term goals and are fuelled by the sustained collection of knowledge,” he stated. “The immense collection of consumer knowledge, to now embrace commerce and buying info, combined with biometrics and activity tracking, feeds detailed intelligence into Chinese language state departments.

“This knowledge can be leveraged to ship focused, well timed and sometimes personalised psychological operations towards people or groups of residents. These techniques might probably be used during election cycles and politically charged events within the coming years.”

Vaughan regards the UK’s TikTok ban as chatting with a wider challenge around how a lot Chinese language influence is deemed acceptable in nationwide infrastructure and on a regular basis life (comparable points dogged Huawei beforehand).

“We’ve seen considerations improve in the West in current months, with using Chinese surveillance know-how being restricted,” he stated. “There have additionally been quite a few reviews of Chinese efforts to sway politicians by means of lobbying and donations, and the general public by way of social media and the unfold of disinformation.”

“Traditionally, Russia has been probably the most outstanding consumer of data operations as we saw from its activities associated to the 2016 US election and the Brexit referendum. China has been extra targeted on stealing mental property which it may possibly then use to its own advantage. Nevertheless, there are indications that the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] will begin to focus extra on info and influence operations to realize its strategic objectives which provides to the considerations about using know-how comparable to TikTok.

“Any situations of these activities must be met head-on by Western political leaders who should take a robust stance towards it on the government degree, quite than leaving the duty to particular person organisations.”

Double standards

In her response to Dowden’s statement yesterday, Labour deputy chief Angela Rayner was scathing in accusing the federal government of being behind the curve and making sudden U-turns, and for some within the cyber security group, there’s something distinctly fishy about its choice.

Matthew Hodgson, co-founder and CEO of safe comms providers supplier Factor, stated that in one necessary means, the ban is downright hypocritical.

“The UK authorities banning officials having TikTok on their telephones whereas pushing by way of legislation that may give the UK authorities access to all UK communications screams of double standards,” stated Hodgson.

“Outwardly it seems to be like they’re taking the safety of knowledge critically by stopping China having a backdoor into UK knowledge, albeit only for government officials presently. Nevertheless, the UK authorities is pushing by means of the Online Safety Invoice, which creates a really comparable backdoor into every communications platform used by UK residents.

“So, it’s not OK for China to access government communications but it’s OK to offer a route for them to entry citizen communications by way of On-line Security Bill weaknesses? We need to shield the privateness of UK citizens as we speak from dangerous actors and nation states of all sizes and shapes,” he stated.

TikTok speaks out

Naturally, Westminster’s thoughts usually are not shared by TikTok, which continues to emphasize that it’s by no means been requested handy over knowledge by the Chinese government, and insists it might by no means achieve this if asked.

In a press release following Dowden’s announcement on sixteen March, a TikTok spokesperson stated: “We’re dissatisfied with this determination. We consider these bans have been based mostly on elementary misconceptions and pushed by wider geopolitics, by which TikTok, and our hundreds of thousands of customers in the UK, play no part.

“We remain committed to working with the federal government to deal with any considerations, however must be judged on details and handled equally to our rivals. We’ve begun implementing a complete plan to additional shield our European consumer knowledge, which incorporates storing UK consumer knowledge in our European datacentres and tightening knowledge access controls, including third-get together unbiased oversight of our strategy.”

The organisation believes it is inaccurate to describe it as Chinese-owned as its European presence is included and regulated in the UK and Eire, and its father or mother, Bytedance, is included outdoors of China, so would not be topic to legal guidelines that require it handy over knowledge to Beijing if asked.

The agency lately announced Venture Clover, a devoted safe European “enclave” to harbour its UK and European Economic Space (EEA) consumer knowledge. The fulfilment of this venture will even see UK consumer knowledge – presently saved in datacentres in Singapore and the US – moved inside European jurisdiction.

It has also named a 3rd-get together cyber security firm to audit its controls and protections, monitor knowledge flows, and verify its compliance with relevant laws, which it believes goes past what another tech platform is at present doing.

Venari Security chief know-how officer Simon Mullis agrees that the TikTok ban is politically motivated, to some extent. “The considerations are really rooted within the potential to assure the chain of trust of knowledge protection from beginning to finish, and at all steps in between,” he stated. “With TikTok, this has proven to be extraordinarily troublesome for quite a lot of technical and political causes.

“In fairness, the ban is as much political as it is a consequence of the technical design of the appliance,” stated Mullis. “Is the TikTok design and architecture so wildly totally different from other social media purposes in widespread use as to cause large safety fears? The answer is ‘in all probability not’.”

Long time coming

However Jamie Moles, senior technical manager at ExtraHop, stated that given what we do find out about how TikTok works, and most significantly, what we all know concerning the knowledge it requests and should have access to as a way to run on a device, it’s mystifying why the UK government has dallied for therefore lengthy.

“I’m a safety professional who downloaded and used TikTok when it came out like so many others, including these working in the UK authorities,” he stated. “However here’s the distinction: I removed it as quickly because it turned clear that the app might harvest anything from my telephone including contacts – GPS knowledge, authentication information from other apps, and so on.

“Having this app in your telephone is tantamount to giving the Chinese language authorities the keys to our financial system.”

Arctic Wolf chief info safety officer (CISO) Adam Marrè stated: “TikTok is accumulating large quantities of data from shoppers like consumer location, voiceprints, calendar info and other sensitive knowledge. The difficulty is we don’t know what this knowledge is being used for, or if a overseas government has entry to it. 

“With the rise of knowledge brokers who make a dwelling out of selling consumer info, this platform can function a vessel for malicious actors to leverage. They will then promote this info, which can be utilized to focus on individuals by way of phishing emails, affect by way of propaganda, or even control or entry units. Let this be a reminder that nothing is actually ‘free’ and that we should always all train warning.” 

Faaki Saadi, UK and Eire gross sales director at SOTI, stated: “Any app that harvests the info you set into it ought to be handled with warning. Particularly for individuals trusted with sensitive company info.

“TikTok being banned from UK authorities units should act as a wake-up name to other organisations – do you might have full visibility over the apps your staff have on their company units? If not, perhaps now’s the time to take stock. And it doesn’t have to be a heavy carry – there are answers obtainable that may do that for you, and wipe any unwanted apps right away.”

Social media safety

Marrè and Faadi both converse to a wider challenge with social media basically. Other social media platforms corresponding to Facebook and Instagram proprietor Meta have shown themselves repeatedly to be highly blasé with regard to their consumer knowledge and safety insurance policies. Twitter, beneath the control of the erratic Elon Musk, is heading in an identical path.

And Robert Huber, chief security officer at Tenable, stated that focusing solely on TikTok means we danger missing the forest for the timber. “There are tons of of software program purposes used in authorities businesses day-after-day that introduce danger, and unpatched recognized vulnerabilities are the almost definitely supply of knowledge breaches,” he stated.

“The hot button is for safety leaders to know their organisation’s distinctive danger profile, discover where vulnerabilities exist and prioritise remediation efforts to root out people who could possibly be probably the most dangerous first.”

Should all of us ban TikTok?

Ismael Valenzuela, vice-president of menace analysis and intelligence at BlackBerry, stated he’s already seeing CISOs considering banning using TikTok on company units. This is notably relevant to these working for organisations that function in highly regulated environments, such because the financial providers sector, where corporations are rightly anticipated to conduct their very own product safety testing and legal assessment of privateness coverage positions to, on the very least, limiting use on company units or by excessive-value customers.

“There isn’t any doubt that organisations with recurrently up to date menace fashions based mostly on contextual intelligence, mature asset administration practices and built-in administration endpoint solutions are better positioned to manage this danger enterprise-vast,” stated Valenzuela.

“It underscores the importance of managing danger all through the organisation and the need to assess, and thereby management, the influence of the introduction of latest merchandise and applied sciences upon general organisational security. This consists of using seemingly innocuous chat and social media apps.

“I think that solely a limited variety of CISOs are aware of TikTok’s privacy policy statement,” he continued. “While attacks on the availability chain are an actual concern at the moment, privacy danger also needs to be a prime precedence for CISOs of high-danger organisations. It’s because private knowledge on firm executives and other necessary individuals could be of nice worth within the arms of financially motivated attackers or the state.”

Finally, the query of whether or not security leaders ought to ban or prohibit using TikTok on firm-owned units is one which solely they will answer. However given the rising variety of authorities bans being proposed or enacted, at the very least, a radical danger assessment is in order, coupled with a wider audit of company social media exercise.

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