It's time to talk about TikTok and what it's doing with our kids' data
Posted Tue 18 Feb 2020 at 10:35am
, updated Wed 25 Mar 2020 at 7:20pm
TikTok has built up a large number of social media users in a short space of time.(Reuters: Dado Ruvic)
TikTok is under scrutiny in Australia for its ties to China, with some of the country's top cyber and national security minds warning the app could potentially be used by Beijing authorities to influence and monitor millions of Australian users.
There are concerns that Chinese-owned app TikTok could be used to monitor users
TikTok has 500 million users worldwide, mostly children and teens
MP Andrew Hastie says TikTok's potential ties to the Chinese Government pose a security risk
The wildly popular app, which boasts half a billion users, is the first Chinese-owned social media platform to seriously crack the western world.
Fergus Ryan, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), warned parents of young users not to be fooled by TikTok's similarities to US-owned platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
"The amount of data that all these apps collect on their users is very concerning," he told 7.30.
"But the key difference between Facebook and Instagram and TikTok is that there really isn't much of a firewall between Chinese tech companies and the Chinese state."
China could use data for 'nefarious purposes'
Andrew Hastie is concerned that data from TikTok will allow the Chinese Government to influence future leaders.(ABC News)
Like most social media apps, TikTok collects a huge amount of personal information about its users by demanding access to their phone's camera, microphone, contact list and location using GPS tracking.
Federal MP and chairman of parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, Andrew Hastie, fears that TikTok could be sharing that private information with authorities in Beijing.
"China's National Intelligence Law of 2017 means the Chinese Government can compel businesses to share information with them," he told 7.30.
"So, I doubt if our information is secure when it's owned by Chinese companies."
He believes TikTok poses a potential national security threat to Australia, even though at this stage the app is mostly used by teenagers.
What is TikTok?
The hugely popular social media app you might not have heard of if you're not Gen Z.
"TikTok is largely used by teenagers but they're our future leaders," Mr Hastie said.
"They're our future political, economic, cultural and military leaders and we need to protect their information long term.
"I certainly don't want my children's data going to a foreign country who might use it for nefarious purposes."
Mr Hastie's warning is backed by Labor MP Tim Watts, who sounded the alarm over TikTok's alleged censorship in a speech to Parliament in December.
Cyber-security experts have told 7.30 the concerns are legitimate and more needs to be done to find out exactly where Australian data is ending up, and what it is being used for.
TikTok users in the dark
TikTok user Ellen Hodbay helps her mother Carrie understand the app.(ABC News: Chris Gillette)
Carrie Hobday allowed her 14-year-old daughter Ellen to sign up to TikTok last year.
"I could hear Ellen in her room jumping around and dancing around and I went in and that's what she was doing," she told 7.30.
"I think for her she likes doing acting, so I think it's a creative outlet for her."
The Sydney mother has also downloaded the app to better understand how it works.
But like most parents, Ms Hobday's main concern about TikTok has been who is viewing Ellen's videos, not who owns the app or what it does with her daughter's data.
"It's a concern for me that any of that information would be in anyone's hands, to be honest with you," she said.
"But I didn't know TikTok was a Chinese company, so I guess I hadn't had those thoughts before I found that out."
Chinese ownership not something teens think about
TikTok influencer Olivia Plant has 1.4 million followers.(ABC News: Chris Gillette)
Olivia Plant is one of Australia's most popular TikTokers.
She spends hours a day sharing lip-syncing videos with her 1.4 million followers.
"You can make any videos you want," she told 7.30.
"It can go up to 60 seconds but people usually keep it to 15 seconds.
"You can post comedy videos, relatable videos, cooking videos, anything. And it might do well, it might not, you never really know with TikTok."
Ms Plant said she knew the app was Chinese-owned but that doesn't affect her love of using TikTok.
"It's not something I really think about on there," she told 7.30.
"I don't think anybody, especially around my age group, thinks about it."
Australian Defence Force bans app
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It follows a similar ban by US military forces.
But Mr Hastie is urging the ADF to go even further.
"I think it's a very prudent and wise move that the ADF has banned TikTok," he said.
"And I would go as far as to say, not just work phones or devices but also personal devices.
"The world that we live in now is so much different to what it was during the Cold War.
"Espionage can be conducted on social media platforms. We have to be far more cautious about all these tech platforms."
Not all Australian politicians share the same concerns.
A spokesman for the Premier said he was unconcerned about his personal data potentially being accessed by a company with possible ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
"We see TikTok as a way of making the work of government more accessible to all Victorians," the statement said.
"Telecommunications security is rightly a matter for the Federal Government and its agencies.
"We have no concerns."
'I wouldn't call it content moderation, I'd call it censorship'
Analyst Fergus Ryan is concerned that TikTok is censoring content.(ABC News)
As an expert in Chinese social media, Fergus Ryan has embarked on a year-long study of TikTok and another Chinese-owned app called WeChat, looking into both platforms as potential tools for censorship and surveillance by Beijing authorities.
He is concerned TikTok is restricting, and even deleting, material Beijing doesn't like.
"We've actually had the content moderation guidelines used in TikTok leaked to the media and what those content moderation guidelines show is that TikTok's approach to content moderation is more like what you and I would think is censorship," he said.
Among topics deemed sensitive are the "three Ts": Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan.
"Censorship and propaganda don't have to be done in a very obvious way," Mr Ryan said.
"For example, you don't have to have a video completely deleted for censorship to take place. Instead, they could use something called 'shadow-banning'.
"That means when content is sent out by a user, and they think that their followers have seen it, but in fact, it's not being shown to anyone at all."
There is also anecdotal evidence emerging online of users who have had their videos censored.
In a statement to 7.30, a TikTok spokesperson said it "does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China".
"Earlier this year, we added greater clarity to our Community Guidelines, giving users far more detail around how we define harmful or unsafe content that is not permitted on the platform," the statement said.
TikTok also claimed user data is stored in Singapore and the US, not China. But Mr Ryan said he believed Australian data still ends up in Beijing because that's where the app's engineers are based.
"The app needs to be updated. The app needs to evolve and get better," he said.
"And the people who do that are the engineers.
"It could very well be the case that data is being stored in the United States. But it's highly likely that same data is being accessed by Beijing-based engineers in order to improve the app."
When contacted for comment, the Chinese Embassy said: "As we understand, TikTok operates outside China, it should abide by the local laws."
TikTok to open Sydney office
Despite regulatory pushback, TikTok is opening offices around the world.(Reuters: Danish Siddiqui)
TikTok is expected to be scrutinised by a new federal parliamentary inquiry later this year.
Proposed by Labor and backed by the Government, it will examine the risk posed to Australia's democracy by foreign interference through social media.
But TikTok and parent company Bytedance appear unperturbed, with plans to open a Sydney office in the near future.
"They're serious about the Australian market, and they really want to increase their business here," Mr Ryan said.
In recent weeks, the company has been advertising for a number of roles within the Sydney office.
One position posted online is for a role titled "Head of Public Policy", with responsibilities that include building and establishing relationships with "local and national policymakers, government authorities and advisors", as well as monitoring "political and social events in Australia".
Mr Ryan said it is not surprising the company is looking to hire what is essentially a lobbyist or government relations officer.
"TikTok has been facing a huge amount of regulatory pushback all around the world, from India to the United States," he said.
"It knows it needs to be able to knock on the right doors here in Canberra, to ensure that it has a viable business tomorrow."
Posted 18 Feb 2020, updated 25 Mar 2020
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