By doing so, they can target us with ads and earn our attention. The latest chapter in the data privacy debate centers on one of the world’s most popular apps among young people: TikTok.
But anecdotally, it seems that the potential risks aren’t really something young people care about. Some were interviewed by The Project this week about the risk of their TikTok data being accessed from China.
They said it wouldn’t stop them from using the app. “Everyone has access to everything right now,” one person says. Another said they “don’t have much to hide from the Chinese government”.
Are these honest reviews? Or should Australians really be concerned about yet another social media company picking up their data?
What’s happening with TikTok?
In a 2020 Australian Parliamentary Hearing on Foreign Social Media Interference, TikTok Representatives stressed out: “TikTok Australia data is stored in the US and Singapore, and the security and privacy of this data is our highest priority.”
But as Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyst Fergus Ryan has said noticedIt’s not about where the data is storedbut who has? access.
‘It doesn’t really matter where the data is stored whether the data is accessible from Beijing at any time, and we’ve known that for a few years’ | @ASPI_ICPC‘s @fryan spoke to @ABC news about Tik Tok & data security
📺 Watch the interview: https://t.co/iKIXqj2Rt2
— ASPI (@ASPI_org) July 19, 2022
On June 17, BuzzFeed published a report based on 80 leaked internal TikTok meetings that appeared to confirm access to US TikTok data by Chinese actors. The report cites multiple examples of data access by TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, which is based in China.
In July, TikTok Australia’s director of public policy, Brent Thomas, wrote to shadow cybersecurity minister James Paterson about China’s access to Australian user data.
Thomas denied that he had been asked for data from China or that he had “given data to the Chinese government” – but he also noted that access is “based on the need to access data”. So there’s good reason to believe Australian users’ data be able to accessible from China.
TikTok Australia replied to my letter, admitting that Australian user data can also be accessed in mainland China, putting it within the reach of the Chinese government, despite their previous assurances that it was secure as it was stored in the US and Singapore. pic.twitter.com/ITY1HNEo6v
— James Paterson (@SenPaterson) July 12, 2022
Is TikTok Worse Than Other Platforms?
TikTok collects extensive consumer information, including personal information and behavioral data of people’s activity on the app. It is no different from other social media companies in this respect.
They all need a sea of user data to send us advertisements and perform data analysis behind a shiny facade of cute cats and trendy dances.
However, TikTok’s business roots extend to authoritarian China — and not the US, where most of our other social media comes from. This has consequences for TikTok users.
Hypothetically, since TikTok moderates content according to Beijing’s foreign policy objectives, it’s possible that TikTok would apply censorship controls to Australian users.
This means that users’ feeds would be filtered to omit anything that doesn’t fit into the Chinese government’s agenda, such as support for Taiwan’s sovereignty, as an example. In “shadow banning”, a user’s messages to the user appear to have been published, but are not visible to anyone else.
It is worth noting that this censorship risk is not hypothetical. In 2019, information about protests in Hong Kong was reportedly censored not only on Douyin, China’s domestic version of TikTok, but also on TikTok itself.
Then in 2020, ASPI found it hashtags related to LGBTQ+ are being suppressed in at least eight languages on TikTok. In response to ASPI’s investigation, a TikTok spokesperson said the hashtags may be restricted as part of the company’s localization strategy and due to local laws.
In Thailand, keywords like #cab, #gayArab and anti-monarchy hashtags were found to be shadowed.
Within China, Douyin complies with strict national content regulations. This includes censoring information about the Falun Gong religious movement and the Tiananmen massacre.
The legal environment in China forces Chinese providers of Internet products and services to cooperate with government agencies. If Chinese companies do not agree, or are not aware of their obligations, they can be hit with legal and/or financial sanctions and forced to shut down.
In 2012, another social media product of ByteDance founder Yiming Zhang was forced to shut down. Zhang fell into the political line in a public apology. He acknowledged that the platform deviated from “public opinion guidelines” by not moderating content that goes against “core socialist values”.
Individual TikTok users should seriously consider leaving the app until global censorship issues are clearly addressed.
But remember, it’s not just TikTok
Meta-products, such as Facebook and Instagram, also measure our interests by the seconds we spend viewing certain posts. They merge that behavioral data with our personal information to try and keep us hooked — watching ads for as long as possible.
Some real cases of targeted advertising on social media has contributed to “digital redlining” – the use of technology to perpetuate social discrimination.
In 2018, Facebook came under fire for showing certain employment ads only to men. A new digital redlining was arranged in 2019 case about discriminatory practices in which advertisements for housing were targeted at certain users on the basis of “race, color, national origin and religion”.
And in 2021, before the US Capitol break-in, advertisements for military and defense products were running alongside talks about a coup.
Then there are some worst-case scenarios. The Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018 revealed how Meta (then Facebook) disclosed users’ data to political consultancy Cambridge Analytica without their consent.
Cambridge Analytica collected up to 87 million user data from Facebook, derived psychological user profiles and used it to tailor pro-Trump messages to them. This likely influenced the 2016 US presidential election.
With TikTok, the most immediate concern for the average Australian user is content censorship – not direct prosecution. But within China, there are recurring cases of Chinese citizens detained or even imprisoned for using both Chinese and international social media.
You can see how the consequences of mass data collection are not hypothetical. We need to demand greater transparency about how data is used not only from TikTok, but from all major social platforms.
Let’s continue with the regulation debate TikTok has accelerated. We should try to update privacy protections and embed transparency into Australia’s national legal guidelines – for whatever the next big social media app may be.