It’s been the hottest application with teens for a while. But now, TikTok is starting to feel the heat over its ties to China.
The popular short video sharing app was launched by Beijing-based company Bytedance in 2018.
It’s among the first Chinese-based social media apps to find widespread success outside of the country, with more than 1.6 million Australian users.
Australian politicians previously have called for greater scrutiny of the app and its data-collecting practices, because of its links to China.
So why are people so worried about TikTok?
What data does TikTok collect?
Like many other apps, TikTok collects its users’ data, including details about you and your smartphone, your contacts, and your location.
According to Swinburne University lecturer Dr Belinda Barnet, this is common across many social media platforms.
She argues that data collecting practices of all major tech companies need regulation, not just those of TikTok.
It’s TikTok’s Chinese ownership that distinguishes it from other US-owned tech companies.
China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law compels individuals and companies to assist the government by providing access, cooperation or support for intelligence-gathering activities.
ANU’s National Security College senior adviser Katherine Mansted says there is reason for concern.
According to Ms Mansted, TikTok is incentivised to collect a trove of data for commercial reasons — and this information could also be of value to the Chinese government.
She said there are fears that tech companies in China could be influenced by people inserted or appointed into roles with the company.
Company policies might also be shaped internally by a desire to avoid government intervention.
TikTok Australia’s general manager Lee Hunter said that the company does not and would not share data — which is stored in Singapore — with any foreign government.
A global backlash
Growing concerns about China’s influence over the application have spawned responses from governments around the world.
India blocked access to 59 Chinese smartphone applications in late June, including TikTok, citing “credible inputs” that the applications posed a threat to national sovereignty and Indian citizens’ privacy.
The shock decision came among rising tensions between India and China following a clash in the Himalayas between the two nations earlier that month.
TikTok announced on Tuesday that it will withdraw from the Hong Kong market following a new national security law imposed by China that expands surveillance powers in the semi-autonomous state.
“In light of recent events, we’ve decided to stop operations of the TikTok app in Hong Kong,” a TikTok spokesman told Reuters.
The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that the Trump administration is considering banning Chinese social media applications, including TikTok, over national security concerns.
Mr Pompeo told Fox News that Americans should only use TikTok “if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party”.
In Australia, Federal government MP George Christensen said TikTok, along with other Chinese applications like WeChat, should be banned.
Federal Labor Senator Jenny McAllister has also raised concerns about the application and said she hopes that the company will appear before the Senate Select Committee Inquiry into Foreign Interference Through Social Media, which she chairs.
Earlier this year, the ABC revealed that the application was prohibited on Australian Defence devices, similar to a ban by US military forces.
Australian politicians on TikTok
Despite these concerns, there are at least six Australian federal and state politicians who have accounts on the applications: Federal members Anika Wells and Andrew Laming, Victoria’s Daniel Andrews, NSW’s Rose Jackson, SA’s Sam Duluk and ACT’s Mark Parton.
Miss Wells confirmed that both she and a staff member have the account installed on their phones. She said she made the decision to create an account after her office researched the application, and her future usage would depend on the findings of the senate inquiry.
Representatives for Mr Andrews and Mr Parton both confirmed they had accounts but didn’t answer questions about whether it was installed on their phones and whether they had been briefed on any security concerns.
Mr Duluk deleted his account following ABC enquiries.
Neither Mr Laming nor Ms Jackson’s offices responded to requests for comment.
Broader concerns about social media
Peter Micek is the general counsel of the global digital rights advocacy group Access Now. He said that while TikTok has been the focus of several global data protection complaints and investigations, there are significant, similar concerns about many other apps.
Ms Mansted agrees that the risk exists on other platforms as well and said that any discussion about foreign interference, censorship or misinformation shouldn’t be limited to TikTok.
“There’s ways of acting that are short of a ban. We could put more requirements for transparency on whether this data is accessed by a government or transparency about the algorithm, so it’s less likely to be gamed by foreign powers,” she said.
Still, Ms Mansted said, it’s worth considering other ways that foreign governments could be using tech companies.
“China has an insatiable appetite for personal data on citizens in other democracies, and its own citizens as well. State sponsored operatives have been behind hacks of financial institutes, travel information, and likely university records.”
She said that other risks include foreign governments running sock puppet accounts or buying data from legitimate data aggregators.
Meanwhile, Australian TikTok users responded to fears that the application could be banned in Australia by tweeting at the Prime Minister Scott Morrison and circulating a petition opposing such a move.
One user even posted a video containing a fake tweet that appears to be from the Prime Minister’s account saying that TikTok will be banned in Australia. The video is captioned “SCOMO NO!!!”
By Cameron Wilson