One of the United States’ top technology regulators has urged Australia to ban TikTok in its current form, arguing the wildly popular Chinese-owned app is a sophisticated surveillance tool that poses a uniquely troubling national security threat.
The Albanese government will announce a ban on the use of TikTok on government-provided devices this week, a move US Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr described as the “lowest of the low-hanging fruit” when it comes to regulation of the video-sharing app.
Carr – one of four members of the federal agency responsible for implementing and enforcing American communications law – told and : “There are more red flags about TikTok than at a Chinese Communist Party parade.”
The Biden administration has warned TikTok the app faces a total ban in the US unless owner ByteDance, which is headquartered in Beijing, sells it.
“This really only ends one of two ways: a ban on TikTok or the complete divestiture from any entity beholden to the Chinese Communist Party,” Carr said.
In a submission to the Senate’s inquiry into foreign interference through social media, Carr wrote: “While I have a base level of concern involving social media platforms in general, there is a unique set of national security concerns when it comes to this app.”
He continued: “At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data. Indeed, TikTok’s own disclosures state that it can collect everything from search and browsing histories to keystroke patterns and biometric identifiers, including faceprints – which researchers have said might be used in unrelated facial recognition technology – and voiceprints.
“It collects location data as well as draft messages and metadata, plus it has collected the text, images and videos that are stored on a device’s clipboard. The list of personal and sensitive data it collects goes on from there.”
Describing TikTok as “far more alarming than your average app”, Carr said “entities that are beholden to the [People’s Republic of China] – like the ones in TikTok’s ownership chain – are not capitalist entities that are pursuing a profit motive. That is why I support banning TikTok in its current form in the United States, a step that I believe Australia should take as well.”
Carr, who was appointed to the commission by former president Donald Trump, said TikTok had engaged in a “pattern of misrepresentations regarding both the amount and type of sensitive data it collects as well as the extent to which that data has been accessed from inside China”.
He said he was concerned by reports that a master administrator in Beijing had access to all TikTok user data and that ByteDance personnel had spied on journalists who had written negatively about TikTok, describing the company’s claims about protecting user data as “nothing other than gaslighting”.
Lee Hunter, TikTok’s general manager for Australia and New Zealand, disputed Carr’s claims, saying: “There is no evidence to suggest that TikTok in any way poses a security risk to Australia. Australia’s millions of TikTok users can be confident that their data is safe with us.
“It is disappointing that we continue to be dragged into the wider geopolitical debate, apparently because of our country of origin.”
Liberal senator James Paterson, the chair of the inquiry committee, said Carr’s comments were “very significant” as the Federal Communications Commission was the “expert regulator of apps like TikTok”.
“Commissioner Carr is right to call for the US and Australia to be on the same page on this serious national security issue,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re not.”
Paterson said Australia was lagging its “Five Eyes” security partners – the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand – in banning politicians and public servants from using the app on work phones.
Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil, who commissioned a review of TikTok’s data harvesting practices, has ruled out banning the app, which has an estimated 7 million monthly users in Australia.
The BBC this week urged its staff to delete the app from corporate mobile phones because of concerns about data security.
With concerns about the app mounting among both US Democrats and Republicans, TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew will tell a congressional hearing on Thursday that ByteDance is not owned or controlled by any government or state entity.
“TikTok has never shared, or received a request to share, US user data with the Chinese government. Nor would TikTok honour such a request if one were ever made,” he will say, according to written testimony posted online.
In a TikTok video on Wednesday, Chew appealed directly to the app’s users to contact politicians and tell them why they love the app and do not want it banned.
He revealed the app now has an estimated 150 million users in the US, up from 100 million in 2020.
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