It’s littered with millions of video clips of fluffy dogs, silly pranks, cute dance moves and mimics of Harry Potter magic. If you’re under 25, or have kids that age, you already know what we’re talking about.
The social media app TikTok has 7 million monthly users in Australia and more than 1 billion worldwide, more than double those of Snapchat and Twitter.
How could something so fun be a threat? “To me,” FBI chief Christopher Wray this month told a congressional committee, “it screams out with national security concerns.”
The Albanese government agrees. It’s poised to announce that the app will be banned on all federal government phones and other devices, as Nick Bonyhady and Anthony Galloway reported in this masthead last week.
It will be the standardisation of a practice already widespread. Sixty-eight federal agencies have blocked the download of TikTok. These include the Defence Department, ASIO and the Attorney-General’s Department.
The department that recently was commissioned to review the idea of a blanket federal ban, the Department of Home Affairs, outlawed the app internally years ago. So, no prizes for guessing what its confidential review recommended.
In this instance, Australia is not leading. It will become the fifth and final member of the Five Eyes spying network to ban TikTok from government devices in the last few months, following the United States, Canada, Britain and New Zealand. Beyond the Five Eyes, the European Union has done the same. India was ahead of them all – it banned TikTok and 117 other apps more than two years ago.
But why? It’s partly because TikTok’s app collects a good deal of information about everyone who uses it. The tech magazine explains: “TikTok knows the device you are using, your location, IP address, search history, the content of your messages, what you’re viewing and for how long. It also collects device identifiers to track your interactions with advertisers.
“TikTok ‘infers’ factors such as your age range, gender and interests based on the information it has about you. In the US, TikTok can collect biometric information including face and voiceprints.” It also collects the content you create – messages, video, audio – even if you don’t end up uploading or saving it.
And it has a record of being careless with how it does so. In 2019, US regulators fined it $US5.7 million for collecting information on children in violation of child privacy laws. Also, the company’s owner, ByteDance, has been caught out in its statements on how and where it allows access to its users’ private data.
But the other big, US-based social media apps have been caught doing much the same. So what’s the difference? In Wray’s words, it’s because “this is a tool that is ultimately within the control of the Chinese government”. And that means the Chinese Communist Party can collect anything it wants about anyone it wants. Under China’s National Security Law, private businesses must co-operate with the government as required.
But ByteDance has long claimed that its China staff has no access to the private data of some of its foreign customers, including all US users. A company executive swore to a US Senate hearing in 2021 that a “world-renowned, US-based security team” decided who was allowed access, only to be embarrassed by a series of leaks from its own staff. “Everything is seen in China,” said a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department in a videotaped meeting. In another, a company director referred to a Beijing-based engineer as a “Master Admin” who “has access to everything”.
In a new report, an Australian expert on CCP influence, John Garnaut, formerly a China correspondent for this masthead, writes that ByteDance “can no longer be accurately described as a private enterprise”. To support this claim, he cites the example of Zhang Fuping, who is both ByteDance’s Communist Party committee secretary and its editor-in-chief.
Watching on from Australia specifically, the leading political activist on digital security, Liberal senator James Paterson, wrote to TikTok Australia in July last year to ask whether Australian user data was accessible in China.
When the company replied “yes”, Paterson immediately asked the Albanese government to act. Since then, the evidence has continued to mount that ByteDance has abused the trust of its users and misled regulators.
It admitted in December, for example, that staff had accessed user information to track and monitor journalists in the US and UK. Why? Because the reporters had been publishing leaks from inside TikTok and the staff wanted to find their sources. The offending staff have been sacked, according to the company.
A second prominent concern about TikTok is that it could be used to drive divisive and confusing misinformation campaigns in the US or Australia, or elsewhere, in the event of a crisis. While this may be true, America’s own social media apps seem to have done such a splendid job in that regard that it’s hard to imagine TikTok could do better.
Paterson wonders what has been taking the Albanese government so long. He points out that Australia led the world in banning Huawei from its 5G telecommunications system, but lags on TikTok.
Now, the US is taking it to an extreme. The US regulator on foreign investment, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, is threatening to force ByteDance to sell its US operations and expunge any elements of Chinese government control or to face a total ban in the US.
If the US does so, Australian officials and MPs agree it is very likely Canberra and the other Five Eyes nations will follow.
And this seems to be the direction in which the entire Western world is heading, one Chinese company at a time. Tech decoupling from China seems to have an unstoppable momentum. The only question now is which companies and technologies will be next. And when. Tick-tock …
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