Australia has officially banned TikTok on government issued devices after a review into the data collection practices of social media companies was completed and handed over to Home Affairs Minister Claire O’Neil.
It ends months of speculation as to whether the federal government would follow suit on banning the app, several weeks after the US and New Zealand joined several countries in banning government officials from downloading the popular social media platform.
They argue it represents a security threat and that the Chinese government could use it to spy on users. Australia now joins it’s Five Eyes intelligence partners in instituting a government-wide ban on the app.
Experts however, have questioned the concerns over the perceived security threats posed by the app. They say these concerns have been misrepresented.
Tech and cybersecurity experts told Central News there is little difference between the app and the data it collects compared to other social media apps, and that cyber security concerns are geopolitical ‘what ifs’ rather than a technical security risk.
“There is nothing which TikTok is doing differently which is being done by Google, Instagram, and Facebook,” says Gurcharan Maheshkumar, a senior information technology manager at a popular tech firm in Malaysia. “All of them work on the same principle that the customers who are using them are the product themselves.”
A security services professional (who did not wish to be named) agreed with Maheshkumar, telling Central News TikTok does not operate differently to other social media and tech platforms when they collect and store users’ data.
TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, and it is the potential influence of the Chinese government over Chinese-owned tech companies, that has prompted concerns among government officials that the country’s communist party may have access to users’ data which could be exploited for propaganda or national security purposes.
I don’t see how TikTok data would actually cause a problem or a national security risk.
TikTok has denied these claims.
In recent testimony to a US congressional hearing the company’s chief executive Shou Zi Chew said the app was not operated by China.
“ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government,” he said. “It is a private company. TikTok itself is not available in mainland China.”
TikTok houses its data across servers in the US and Singapore, with the company recently partnering with US tech company Oracle to store the data of US and Australian users.
I was blunt: “This has become a politicised issue that is not really about data security or the security of the national discourse, but is really about making TikTok into an example, or a sort of manifestation, of a broader political struggle around what to do regarding China.”
— Graham Webster (@gwbstr) January 20, 2023
However, TikTok’s assurances about the safeguards in place to protect users’ data have done little to stifle criticism of the app’s data gathering practices.
Reports by BuzzFeed in December revealed a ByteDance employee based in China had accessed the personal data of a few US users while trying to uncover a leak from another employee and tracked the location of journalists who published the information.
But in terms of data collection, what TikTok does is the same or less than many other social media apps. Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat hold far more information on users than TikTok and can also ask for a user’s GPS location, something TikTok can’t.
“The same data that TikTok collects has been collected by Instagram… Facebook, or any other company,” Mr Maheskumar says. “I don’t see how TikTok data would actually cause a problem or a national security risk.”
Associate Professor Marina Zhang from the Australia-China relations institute at the University of Technology Sydney says the contention that TikTok data can be accessed by China’s government is a mere hypothesis.
She adds it’s difficult for TikTok to track users’ data with the protections in place that keep the data secure.
“The parent company of TikTok has agreed to not keep any individual data, so your privacy is actually embedded in the big database,” she says.
“Therefore the company cannot directly track any individual data.”
Professor Zhang says ByteDance does not have direct access to the data servers located outside of mainland China. She questions the motive ByteDance and TikTok would have in harvesting private users’ data to exploit personal information.
“I just don’t think technically for the company to have access to private data is very likely or [a] very sensible thing to do,” she said.
“Why [would] a private company driven by commercial benefits… do this?”
China’s government enacted a string of laws regulating the operations of Chinese tech firms and the content they provide users.
The concerns hanging over TikTok’s ability to protect user data is the latest example of challenges faced in digital data security across the tech industry.
National security laws in countries like China have complicated matters further as tech firms face looming threats which could compel them to hand over users’ data.
I would say that social media whether it be Facebook or [any others] should be uniformly banned across all those places where [countries] feel it’s a national security risk.
Daniel Carter, a PhD candidate at the UNSW faculty of Law and Justice, says it would be difficult for security agencies in Australia for example, to access electronic data off third-party servers under Australian law on national security grounds.
However, he says that laws governing these practices could be reformed.
“Physical access directed at a specific person and virtual access directed at individuals through a service provider… presents a challenge to how the law approaches security service data access and the protection of user data rights and privacy,” Carter said.
Maheshkumar says other tech and social media apps should be dealt with accordingly by countries if there is an imperative to protect national security, by banning some of of the biggest names in the tech world.
“I would say social media whether it be Facebook or [any others] should be uniformly banned across all those places where [countries] feel it’s a national security risk,” he said.
The Australian Signals Directorate has been given more than $10 bn to provide strategic leadership on data & online security risks.
It must deliver this strategic advice not only on TikTok but on all major social media platforms accessed in Aus and not just for govt but for all
— David Shoebridge (@DavidShoebridge) April 3, 2023
Shadow minister for Cybersecurity James Patterson has been one of the most vocal proponents in Australia urging a ban on the app.
Speaking on Sky News recently he claimed both the “foreign interference risk” of the app “is high” and that the platform harbours disinformation spread by foreign state actors. He provided no evidence to back the claims.
Fergus Ryan, a senior analyst at the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said: “There is certainly a geopolitical element involved and that’s what makes the TikTok question different to other social media apps.”
“The Chinese communist party has enormous leverage over ByteDance and over all tech companies based in China.”
With TikTok caught up in political and national security concerns, the transparency with which the company exercises its operations has also damaged the company’s efforts to regain trust.
It could affect how over a billion users of the app continue to engage with the platform.
“TikTok has not presented itself as a very trustworthy and transparent company on how… data is shared or accessed between different countries,” said Ausma Bernotaite, a postdoctoral researcher at the Charles Sturt University Graduate School of Policing and Security.
“It’s not unreasonable to make an assumption that if TikTok data can be accessed in China it would be easily made available to public security and law enforcement actors as well.”
The Minister for Home Affairs and TikTok Australia were contacted for comment but did not reply.
Image credits: Wikimedia Commons