A high-level security review examining privacy concerns about TikTok and other Chinese social media giants is considering how to prevent political censorship and disinformation on the platforms.
The seven-month inquiry will be handed to Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil in the coming weeks and comes as laws are set to pass in the United States that will give the Biden administration legal authority to ban companies including TikTok, which is owned by the China-based ByteDance.
It also follows months of concern over Australian government departments having different policies on the use of the application on departmental devices.
When this masthead was told about the review in September, O’Neil confirmed that it would look into the data harvesting by social media companies such as TikTok and WeChat based in authoritarian states.
Government sources, who are not authorised to speak publicly, have now revealed the review is also examining the manipulation of content on the platforms, such as the censorship of posts about Tibet and Xinjiang, and the promotion of pro-Beijing positions.
A TikTok executive in 2020 admitted that the app had previously censored content likely to anger China, but insisted that was no longer the case.
‘Any Chinese company has to make data available to government authorities should they be directed to do so.’
Marcus Thompson, the ADF’s former head of information warfare
Security agencies including the Australian Signals Directorate and the Australian Cyber Security Centre, which sit within the Defence Department, have participated in the review.
Australian officials have also consulted the Biden administration as both countries consider how to respond to growing concerns about TikTok.
A TikTok spokesperson said the company had “engaged collaboratively with the Department of Home Affairs in relation to their review of all social media platforms in Australia”.
TikTok was the most downloaded mobile entertainment app in Australia last year and it now has 7.38 million Australian users over the age of 18, according to a report by communications agency We Are Social and social media management firm Hootsuite.
Fergus Ryan, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre, said it was clear that TikTok had tried to influence political debate in the past.
Ryan said the Chinese Communist Party would have the ability to interfere in Australia’s upcoming Voice to parliament referendum, but this was unlikely.
“That could be something that they could attempt to do in a way that would be very difficult for people to detect,” he said.
“When it comes to elections, that kind of microtargeting of political messages can go right down to certain electorates if they want to.”
Ryan said Australia’s policy might follow the US response. The Biden administration last week endorsed a bipartisan bill which would allow the president to force the sale of foreign-owned technology companies if they present a national security threat.
Opposition spokesman for cybersecurity and countering foreign interference James Paterson said the government should ban TikTok from government devices as soon as possible.
The next step would be to counter foreign interference through the platforms which were a “very permissive environment for state-backed disinformation”, he said.
“In the United States, this issue is thoroughly bipartisan, as demonstrated by the Warner-Thune bill endorsed by 12 senators from both parties and backed by the White House,” he said.
“There’s no reason it shouldn’t be bipartisan in Australia, too, because this is a serious threat to our democracy that should offend all Australians.”
The Home Affairs review is also looking into data harvesting by TikTok after it was leaked last year that employees of its parent company, ByteDance, had repeatedly accessed data in China.
Marcus Thompson, the Australian Defence Force’s former head of information warfare and the chair of cybersecurity company ParaFlare, said the key difference between the data harvesting conducted by TikTok and Facebook is that a company based in China is subject to national security laws which could force them to hand over the data.
“Facebook do their data harvesting for commercial purposes so that they can harvest our data and sell it back to us,” he said. “TikTok may well do the same, but there is this law in China that any Chinese company has to make data available to government authorities should they be directed to do so.”
William Stoltz, a senior fellow at the Australian National University’s National Security College, said banning the application might be counterproductive because people would find a way around it.
“First and foremost, we have to undertake measures that, from a very early age, educate Australians about how information can be manipulated online and to exercise a critical eye on what they consume,” he said.
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