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Government ministers must be wary of allowing their children to use the popular TikTok app for fear of exposing secrets to Chinese spies, a former MI6 chief has warned.
TikTok is a Chinese video-sharing social-networking service owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based internet technology company.
Nigel Inkster, a former intelligence and operations director at the British Secret Intelligence Service, said the Beijing-owned app could serve as an “entry-point” for hackers backed by the Communist state.
Mr Inkster, who left the service in 2006 and is now a leading expert on China’s cyber threat at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, warned China’s security services were adept at finding digital weak spots for high-profile targets from which to siphon off sensitive material.
His comments come as US President Donald Trump announced sweeping legal restrictions on TikTok in the US, citing security concerns.
The app has become a runaway success with children and teenagers in the past few years for its short dance and prank videos, and it now has roughly 800 million users worldwide.
However, the app, which was created in 2018, is owned by the Beijing-based tech giant ByteDance, which comes under China’s sweeping security laws stating any company or citizen has to assist its security services.
TikTok has repeatedly said that none of its users’ data is stored in China and it is not shared with the communist regime.
However, Mr Inkster told The Telegraph that as long as TikTok was owned by a Chinese company the country’s security services potentially had a back door into its data. #
He warned the app could also serve as an entry point to prominent UK figures' online devices, even if on the phones of household members or relatives sharing the same wi-fi network.
“Where the Chinese intelligence services are very strong is in identifying non-obvious entry points to certain targets,” Mr Inkster said.
“They have shown a lot of skill in this regard: attacking a target from a variety of different directions, none of them obviously pointing to the target, but that will bring them closer to it.
“This [TikTok being used as an entry point] is something I am sure people are having to think about.”
A spokesman for the National Cyber Security Centre, part of GCHQ, said it does not currently consider TikTok a “significant additional security risk”.
TikTok and its links to China have been coming under increasing scrutiny in recent weeks and on Thursday President Trump signed an executive order that will place severe restrictions on the company’s US operation within 45 days.
At the same time, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, warned that TikTok and other Chinese apps such as WeChat posed “significant threats to the personal data of American citizens”.
Amid the mounting political pressure, ByteDance has entered into talks with US tech giant Microsoft with a view to selling off the prized social media network.
Meanwhile, the app has boomed in popularity in the UK in recent years, with Ofcom figures showing almost half of eight to 12-year-olds are using it.
A spokesman for TikTok said: “TikTok does not operate in China and is not even available there.
“Our UK user data is currently stored in the US and Singapore and will soon be transferred to a new data centre in Ireland.
“We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”
Mr Inkster said he felt it is unlikely the UK is close to taking a step as dramatic as banning the app despite the pressure ratcheting up in Washington, adding ministers would need a high burden of proof that it posed a national security risk.
However, he said even if TikTok is considered a potential liability for Cabinet members and senior civil servants, it would be difficult for Whitehall to impose an effective moratorium on the family members downloading it.
He added: “I don’t underestimate the difficulty of doing that with families. Individuals employed by the Government, that is easy enough to do.
“You can say ‘Thou Shalt Not’ as a condition of employment, but extending that to families may be problematic and not that realistic.”
A Government spokesman said: “All departments have robust processes in place to ensure communication around Government business is secure.”