Amid recent pressure on Australia’s federal Labor government over its slow response to TikTok, as the only Five Eyes government to not have issued a ban, the issue was raised in parliament by Special Minister of State Don Farrell.
During Question Time in the upper house on March 24, Labor’s Farrell said that the Coalition had failed to introduce and enforce laws for appropriate security controls to avoid risks associated with the social media app TikTok during its time in government.
TikTok is owned by Chinese firm ByteDance Ltd. and has come under the spotlight, as other Five Eyes nations all moved to increase measures to ensure their politicians and government departments who are active on the social media app are not at risk of having their data exposed or accessed by China’s ruling communist party (CCP).
With the app having launched in Australia in May 2019. Farrell said the Coalition had three years to enforce measures to protect Australians.
“That gave you three years to deal with it. I don’t say you had nine years to deal with it, but I do say you had three years to deal with the issue,” Farrell told the Senate.
“This government takes the issue of TikTok seriously.”
“You had years and years to deal with this issue. You did nothing, like with so many other things. There were issues that you should have dealt with when you were in government, but of course you didn’t do it.”
Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neill is expected to announce a recommendation to ban the app from all official government-issues devices after receiving a security report into TikTok. O’Neill instigated the TikTok review in 2022 following concerns that the app had been collecting personal and sensitive data, and sending it back to China with the potential for the CCP to access and use it.
However, is it unlikely that O’Neill will recommend government officials delete the app from their personal devices.
Burner Phones for ‘Safe’ Use of TikTok
It is reported that many federal cabinet ministers, MPs, and premiers are currently using burner phones to run the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok.
A burner phone, sometimes referred to as a “burn phone,” is usually an inexpensive phone used to perform sensitive communications or run untrusted apps for privacy protection, as it is compartmentalised from accessing a user’s data on their main phone.
While there are recommendations to do so, any decision to have the app officially banned will have to go through the Attorney General’s office.
Nearly 3.2 million Australians are currently active on the TikTok app, which has been widely promoted and taken up by teens as a popular app for filming, editing, and posting short videos. Many of the videos are song or dance challenges where TikTok creators encourage people to join in with specific actions and interact with their content.
Earlier this month, Liberal Senator James Patterson told Sky News’ AM Agenda of the U.S. government’s ban on TikTok: “That’s been matched by the Canadian government, the European Commission, and by other countries like Denmark. I think Australia is falling behind here.”
“I’ve been calling on the Albanese government for eight months to do something about this after TikTok admitted to me in a letter in July last year that Australian user data is accessible in mainland China. Ever since then, I think there’s been a compelling case to act,” Patterson, the shadow minister for Cyber Security and shadow minister for Countering Foreign Interference, said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t seen any action from the government yet, but I hope that changes soon.”
Foreign Intrusions on Australian Data
Patterson also appeared on Channel 7’s Sunrise on March 21 and told viewers that only action from the federal government will be able to protect Australians from the recognised cybersecurity threat.
“I hope that swiftly follows,” he said of a ban from Labor. “[TikTok] does pose a serious national security threat in two respects: One is the way in which it handles data and the espionage risk that comes from that.
“And the second is the risk of foreign interference in that it reaches millions of Australians with a non-transparent algorithm that could be used to promote narratives supportive of the Chinese Communist Party and suppress ones that are critical of it.”
Patterson also mentioned a law TikTok has to follow as their headquarters are located in China, which is China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law (pdf), which they are subject to, leaving the potential for the Chinese state to intervene.
The CCP’s constitution states that organisations and/or citizens are required to “support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work.”
This intelligence law requires all Chinese citizens and companies, like TikTok’s parent company, to cooperate with China’s intelligence services and that it is kept a secret.
“So, if they’re asked by the Chinese government to hand over the data on Australian citizen, they will have to comply and we will never know,” Patterson said.
Many government officials have a separate burner phone for TikTok to reduce the chance of a security breach. But “that doesn’t work for millions of Australians—they’re not all going to go get a second phone.”
Patterson added he doesn’t have a burner phone and doesn’t use TikTok either as he regards the app “as a very serious national security threat.”
“TikTok Australia may never know that their parent company is engaging in this cooperation, and that exposes Australians to very real personal security and privacy risks.
“Deleting it is the best thing you can do if you’re worried about your privacy, personal security and safety. It can’t harvest your data if it’s not on your phone.”
Safeguarding TikTok Users
On March 20, TikTok Australian introduced an update for TikTok users to enable self-expression and a more enjoyable viewing experience.
TikTok said the update will safeguard the social media platform users by removing content that “breaks our rules.”
Content that is not appropriate for a broad audience will be removed, topics that could have a negative impact if viewed repeatedly will be minimised, and content with complex or mature themes from teen accounts will also be filtered out, the company said.
TikTok responded to allegations on March 20 that the social media platform was likely to be banned from government-issued devices, telling The Australian that the app presents no security risk to Australia.
“We have attempted to engage with the Albanese government, but the government has refused to engage with us,” said TikTok Australian and New Zealand general manager Lee Hunter in a statement, according to the report.
“The government’s failure to consult with us about this apparent decision would be deeply concerning to TikTok’s millions of Australian users, as well as businesses across the country. There is not a single piece of evidence to suggest TikTok is in any way a security risk to Australians.”
“TikTok doesn’t operate in China; we’re a global company. And there’s also this idea we’re part of the CCP. Australian user data is held in the U.S. and Singapore, with really strong cybersecurity to make sure that data is held safe,” Hunter told viewers on The Project’s March 22 show.
The Albanese government has yet to respond to TikTok’s claims.
Victoria Kelly-Clark contributed to this report.