At the same time as the popularity of mobile app TikTok rises exponentially, countries around the world have raised data and security concerns. Australia recently announced a Parliamentary Inquiry into the app due to fears that China may be harvesting the sensitive personal information of Australia’s 1.6 million TikTok users. The TikTok concerns have arisen amidst speculation that China was behind Australia’s largest series of cyber-attacks to date in June 2020.
TikTok is a video-sharing social networking service owned by Chinese company ByteDance. TikTok has been downloaded over 2 billion times on Apple’s IOS App Store and the Google Play store, and was ranked as the App Store’s most downloaded app for Q1 2020. With its availability in 150 markets and 75 languages, TikTok is the first Chinese-owned application that can be said to have fully infiltrated the Western market.
TikTok collects highly sensitive data, including a user’s phone camera, microphone, contact list and location via GPS tracking. This has raised fears that China is acquiring access to sensitive personal information through the app.
Technology has long been intertwined with geopolitics. Over a decade ago, the world’s largest internet market – China – introduced its Great Firewall to block Facebook, Twitter and Google in the name of preserving its cyber sovereignty.
As the Chinese-owned TikTok platform has grown in popularity worldwide, some countries have undertaken similar measures. On 29 June 2020, India banned TikTok, as well as 58 other Chinese applications, on the basis that they pose a ‘threat to sovereignty and integrity’.
It has been speculated that the United States may also block the app following US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement on 6 July 2020 that the Trump administration is ‘looking at’ banning TikTok. This comes a year after the United States Federal Trade Commission fined ByteDance US$5.7 million for collecting information from minors under the age of 13 in contravention of the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The US fine instigated the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office to launch an investigation into TikTok in February 2019; Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has noted that Bytedance may be violating the General Data Protection Regulations (‘GDPR’), which stipulates specific data protection measures for children.
Most recently, here in Australia the Australian Parliament has announced a Parliamentary Inquiry into TikTok. The culmination of these international responses to TikTok demonstrates nation states’ increasing scrutinisation of potential national security threats.
Australia’s Parliamentary Inquiry into TikTok comes after Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement on 19 June 2020 that all levels of Australian government had been targeted by ‘sophisticated state-based actors’ for a number of months. These attacks – which have been dubbed as Australia’s largest cyber-attacks to date – have been attributed to China with “95% certainty”. For more information on Australia’s June 2020 cyber-attacks, read our recent article here.
ByteDance vehemently denies claims that China is acquiring access to Australians’ personal information through the TikTok app, stating that TikTok’s data is safely stored in Singapore and protected under the nation’s privacy laws. However, aLabor Senator Jenny McAllister has recently stated that “there is credible evidence to suggest that TikTok users’ data has been sent back to servers in China where it can then be analysed and used by authorities to identify and build profiles to track users”.
TikTok is not the first time Chinese technology has raised data and privacy concerns. Huawei, a Chinese company that is one of the world’s largest providers of telecommunications equipment, networking gear and smartphones, has been widely accused of being a gateway for China to spy on foreign countries. As the 5G wireless network is being prepared for rollout around the world, countries are trying to decide whether or how to permit Huawei’s participation. Both the United States and Australia have banned Huawei from their respective 5G networks. This week, the UK announced that UK mobile providers are banned from buying new Huawei 5G equipment and that by 2027, UK mobile providers must remove all of Huawei’s 5G kit from their networks.
Without doubt, concerns about China’s use of consumer-facing technology platforms to harvest the sensitive personal information of users is furrowing the brows of politicians, regulators and consumers. In Australia, this is well and truly on the political agenda.
As geopolitical tensions involving China rise, TikTok is being subjected to greater scrutiny by the Australian government and other governments worldwide. However, we are yet to see whether the Parliamentary Inquiry will lead to an outright ban. We are following developments and will update information as it comes to light.
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