TikTok, the widely popular and frequently scrutinised social media site, has come under fire in the Australian Parliament for misleading claims regarding its data practices.

Earlier this year, a whistleblower contacted American site BuzzFeed with over 80 leaked recordings of internal meetings at TikTok, revealing that China-based employees have recurrently accessed private data about TikTok users.

In an Australian Senate speech made on 4 August 2022, Shadow Minister for Cyber Security Senator James Paterson subsequently voiced concerns over the way TikTok handles the data of its Australian users, stating said data "is accessible in mainland China and had been repeatedly accessed in mainland China."

This isn't the first time TikTok has been raised as an item of concern in the Senate.

TikTok previously appeared before a parliamentary committee, and provided evidence which "assured the Parliament and through the Parliament, the Australian people, that the data of Australian users on their platform was safe".

After said evidence was submitted, the worry surrounding TikTok's data privacy practices seemed to temporarily subside, with then Prime Minister Scott Morrison, although initially sceptical, going on to upload semi-regular content onto the platform.
TikTok's claim of data safety was based on the fact that, in spite of TikTok transmitting data through China-based servers, the data was ultimately stored in countries such as the United States and Singapore.

However, companies based in China have legal obligations to disclose data under certain conditions, regardless of the chosen method of storage.

In an interview with the ABC, Senator Paterson said "because they're headquartered in China,

they're subject to China's national security legislation, including its 2017 National Intelligence Law. And that law requires all companies and individuals to secretly cooperate with Chinese intelligence agencies if requested."

The National Intelligence Law of China is notoriously controversial among security and privacy experts, often enabling apps and companies to collect and share data to Chinese intelligence agencies without disclosing said data sharing to the user.

In this case, TikTok had seemingly neglected to disclose the implications of the National Intelligence Law in its submission to the Australian Parliament.

"We only now know about this because of a leaked report from a whistleblower to BuzzFeed news," Senator Paterson said, adding that he wrote to TikTok Australia to clarify whether the same practice identified by BuzzFeed America also took place in Australia.

"They replied to my letter on the 12th of July acknowledging yes, it is the case that Australian TikTok user data is accessible in mainland China," Senator Paterson concluded.

Bans, bans and more bans

The US asked Google and Apple to Remove TikTok in June, with the Commissioner of the US Federal Communications Commission saying it was “clear that TikTok poses an unacceptable national security risk."

TikTok has already faced bans in numerous countries, including India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, however, China's and TikTok's data practices aren't always the crux of these bans.

Both Pakistan and Indonesia have cited "inappropriate content" for temporary bans against the app, and in the case of Afghanistan, a ban was proposed with aims to "prevent the younger generation from being misled."

Notably, TikTok is an arguably unrivalled platform for accessible political content and activism - and many users from across the globe have used TikTok to spread awareness on important social issues.

Given the widespread popularity and social utility of TikTok, it is difficult for a democratic country to explicitly prohibit use of the social media conglomerate, however, the need for appropriate data and security practices is clear.

Paterson proposes next steps

Senator Paterson proposed the now dissolved Senate Select Committee into Foreign Interference, which was formed during the previous government to "inquire into and report on the risk posed to Australia’s democracy by foreign interference through social media" be re-established.

Senator Paterson cited TikTok as a driving factor in this proposition, and has said "all social media apps pose a form of risk. They are in the business of collecting information on us and then seeking to monetise it.”

"But there are some social media apps which pose a greater risk, for example, Tiktok and WeChat," he added.

The Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) has reportedly briefed some federal MPs about the threat posed by apps, and encouraged federal ministers to use two separate mobile phones, one personal and one professional, for the purpose of data safety.

Paterson critiqued this in his interview with the ABC, saying, "It's clearly not practical advice for the seven million Australians who also use that app. And so, I think much broader action is required.

"China’s obviously a very complex relationship. They have been seeking to economically coerce Australia. Intelligence agencies have previously said they are responsible for record levels of foreign interference, espionage and cyberattacks on Australia.

“And so it does pose a particularly acute concern, even though there are risks with all social media apps," he concluded, possibly in reference to the infamous cyber attack leveraged against Parliament in 2019.

On 11 August, Senator Paterson is scheduled to appear and further discuss foreign affairs on the ABC's debate program, Q+A.