TikTok Australia’s head has denied allegations the popular video app has been collecting Australian data for the Chinese government.
A Herald Sun report, citing an unnamed federal member of parliament, claimed the app had been ‘hoovering’ up the data of the 1.6 million Australians who downloaded it.
TikTok became available for Australians in May 2019 and quickly rose in popularity. It lets users upload and watch short, looped videos on everything from viral dance moves to cooking to impersonating others with dubs, such as Sarah Cooper’s famous Trump impersonations.
TikTok Australia denies sending information to foreign governments
The Prime Minister and other federal MPs have also publicly spoken out against the app with some calling for it to be banned. Scott Morrison told 2GB on July 6 people seemed to be more concerned with COVIDSafe, which has faced a criticism over glaring privacy bugs, rather than TikTok.
“People have to be quite conscious in this digital age that all of these platforms, they all go back to places and people are knowingly handing over their data and their information,” Morrison said to 2GB.
“I think it’s right for people to have an increased awareness of where these platforms originate and the risks they present.”
TikTok Australia’s manager, Lee Hunter, denied the allegations, stating the app was not sending information to foreign governments and that claims to the contrary were baseless.
“TikTok does not share information of our users in Australia with any foreign government, including the Chinese Government, and would not do so if asked. We place the highest importance on user privacy and integrity,” Hunter said in a media statement.
“[The Herald Sun’s] news report is based on an unnamed source, supported by an organisation which has disclosed the receipt of foreign funding to publish its reports.”
TikTok also announced on July 7 it was pulling its operations in Hong Kong where it had reported 150,000 users in September 2019. Its comments suggested the move was related to new laws passed in the region, requiring companies to hand over user data to the Chinese government as well as respect censorship requests.
“In light of recent events, we’ve decided to stop operations of the TikTok app in Hong Kong,” a TikTok spokesperson said.
It comes as a Senate inquiry into foreign interference on social media sites has called on TikTok to appear before it in order to address some of the concerns. Senator Jenny McAllister cited reports that TikTok was taking more data than it was letting on.
“There have been credible reports that TikTok takes more data than its users would expect, and moderates content for reasons that its users may not be comfortable with,” McAllister said.
“I think Australians would expect that TikTok and other platforms will appear before the Senate committee to answer questions — both about their own policies and the best way to secure a healthy social media environment.”
The committee had already heard from a number of analysts on how the 2019 Australian election was likely influenced by disinformation bots on Facebook, based in Balkan countries.
Australian user data kept in Singapore
Hunter added the app’s Australia data is stored in Singapore and has protections in place to minimise the data being sent across regions.
“Similar to industry peers, we will continue to drive our goal of limiting the number of employees who have access to user data and the scenarios where data access is enabled,” Hunter said.
“Although we already have controls in place to protect user data, we will continue to focus on adding new technologies and programs focused on global data residency, data movement, and data storage access protections worldwide.”
To sign up for an account, you’ll need to input your birthday and use your phone number or email address. An account requires no further information in order to use the app and it’s possible to browse the feed with no account at all.
For those concerned about their data, creating a new email address to sign up with and choosing a password used nowhere else is a simple workaround. It’s a lot less data than what most have likely provided major social media sites over the years.