An Australian decision on TikTok can use the advice we already have
TikTok ban

A TikTok ban or sale is possible and important, based on Australian security advice and Chinese state behaviour.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

When asked about a potential ban of TikTok in Australia because of moves to force its sale or banning in the US, Anthony Albanese was right to say that Australia makes its own decisions on national security and that these are “based on our security assessments”, “not following other countries”.

Fortunately for Mr Albanese and the Australian public, a key Australian security chief has provided some public advice that should underpin government decisions on TikTok, a social media platform used by some 8.5 million Australians.

In February, ASIO chief Mike Burgess spoke frankly and clearly in his annual threat assessment about the threat that espionage and foreign interference pose to Australia and Australians, telling us that this is a greater threat to Australians than terrorism. He said:

“When we see more Australians being targeted for espionage and foreign interference than ever before, we have a responsibility to call it out. Australians need to know that the threat is real. The threat is now. And the threat is deeper and broader than you might think.

Ask the Australian business owners who have been bankrupted or nearly bankrupted because spies stole their intellectual property. Ask the Australians who have been tracked, harassed and intimidated for daring to criticise a foreign regime. Or ask the thousands of Australians who have received online friend requests from spies in disguise.”

We also have a crisp description of what foreign interference is from Australia’s Department of Home Affairs:

​​​“Foreign interference occurs when activity carried out by, or on behalf of, a foreign power, is coercive, corrupting, deceptive or clandestine, and contrary to Australia’s sovereignty, values and national interests.

It involves foreign powers trying to secretly and improperly interfere in Australian society to advance their strategic, political, military, social or economic goals, at our expense.

The impacts of foreign interference can reach right across Australian society adversely affecting individuals, information and infrastructure of governments, industry, academia, the media and communities.”

The Chinese government is a world leading practitioner of foreign interference. Australian Uyghurs and former Hong Kong citizens have direct experience of intimidation and coercion. China is also an acknowledged major actor when it comes to theft of companies’ intellectual property and cyber hacking for state purposes. 

It was Chinese foreign interference in Australian politics that led to the strengthening of our laws on this back in 2018.  And, while other states like Russia and Iran also seek to interfere in and reach into the Australian community and diasporas here, China fits the frame for the actions Mike Burgess is talking about as the largest, most motivated threat actor operating in and against Australia.

Unfortunately, TikTok is a wonderful potential tool for engaging in just this type of activity, as well as a rich source of personal data about millions of Australians, their likes, dislikes, views, relationships, networks and behaviours.   That data is gold to any spy agency seeking to cultivate or coerce people with access to what they want or who are in a position to influence or make decisions that affect their government’s interests.

TikTok has also shown its platform can be used to intervene in political debates, by pushing notifications to US users encouraging them to protest to US politicians about the potential sale or ban of the platform. Any doubt that it may have political power is now put to rest.

As a powerful, widely used social media platform, TikTok reaches across every group mentioned in the foreign interference definition above – individuals, communities, politicians, businesses – which helps explain why some 8.5 million Australians – and 170 million Americans – use the app.

TikTok shares many of the flaws and risks in other big social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, X and SnapChat, but TikTok has one big defining and distinctive feature they don’t: it is owned by a Chinese parent company – ByteDance.  And we know that every company, and certainly every big tech company, in China must do whatever the ruling Chinese Communist Party and its spy agencies demand. 

Even the most reluctant Chinese company has no choice but to comply and to deny they have done so.  These are practical and real obligations in Chinese national security and intelligence laws. Ask Jack Ma, the head of another Chinese tech giant, Alibaba, who got on the wrong side of the Chinese Communist Party and was silenced and sidelined, if there’s a choice for Chinese companies when the Party or its spy agencies call.

Xi Jinping has directed these agencies and his ‘magic weapon’ the huge United Front Work Department to ‘tell China’s story well’ and to influence other countries’ decision making on all matters China.  Big tech platforms are fabulous tools for this work – and Chinese-owned and headquartered tech companies are even more attractive than trying to exploit and use other tech platforms like X or Facebook.

Chinese spy agencies and their contractors are notorious cyberhackers who take opportunities to hack into others’ systems and gather personal and other data.  The UK government has just revealed extensive damaging hacks by Chinese state-affiliated cyberhackers to get UK parliamentarians’ and UK citizens’ data, ‘which, in combination with other data sources, would highly likely be used by the Chinese intelligence services for a range of purposes, including large-scale espionage and transnational repression of perceived dissidents and critics in the UK’.

But hacking is hard work.  It’s easier if you can get access to data and the software using it by compelling the maker and operator of apps and systems to disclose and create back doors and open front doors – as Chinese spy agencies can do to Chinese companies.

TikTok has put in place internal business processes that are meant to separate user data from its China-based operations as it has tried to brand itself a global company, not a Chinese company. 

But despite policies on data separation and decision making separate to its Chinese parent company and structures, it was reported back in 2022 that TikTok “admitted that it used its own app to spy on reporters as part of an attempt to track down the journalists’ sources, according to an internal email. The data was accessed by employees of ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company and was used to track the reporters’ physical movements”. The employees doing this were in the US and China. The effort targeted journalists from Buzzfeed and the Financial Times. ByteDance and TikTok had initially issued categorical denials of the allegations when they were first reported.

After the conduct became public knowledge, TikTok fired the employees and said it was an isolated event that additional internal company steps to secure data should prevent from happening again.

Put these things together: Chinese tech companies must cooperate with the Chinese government’s spy agencies and must deny doing so.  Investigative reporting revealed that despite apparent company measures to prevent this happening, ByteDance employees in both the US and China inappropriately accessed American users’ TikTok data to track individuals critical of the company down. 

The algorithms powering Tik Tok are secret to everyone besides ByteDance employees and agents of the Chinese government who make demands under Chinese law. Whether or how it might be tuned and tweaked to comply with Chinese government national security demands and requirements is also unknown and likely to stay that way.

So, the risk of Australian TikTok users’ data being harvested and used by Chinese spy agencies is real.  As is the power that TikTok gives to the Chinese government’s spy agencies should they choose to use the social media platform as a tool for interfering in Australian debates, politics and decision making by shaping what Australians see, hear and do on the platform.

In accordance with Chinese law, all of this must and will be denied by TikTok whether it is happening or not. And it can happen regardless of whether the company is a willing or unwilling partner of the Chinese state.

This all remains the situation while TikTok’s parent company is Chinese.

Nothing here suggests that any Australian TikTok employee or user is doing anything they shouldn’t, or even needs to, for the risks from Chinese state power over Chinese companies to be real.

TikTok is not available to Chinese citizens in China itself, making Beijing’s outrage at the notion it might be banned elsewhere laughable.  The Chinese state also bans Facebook, X, Instagram, Pinterest, SnapChat and even Quora, amongst many others. Lines from Beijing about an assault on free enterprise and freedom of speech are content free propaganda that underline the importance Beijing places on having Chinese tech companies in others’ societies and digital infrastructure.

The sky won’t fall for the 8.5 million Australians who use TikTok if it is banned or sold.

India banned TikTok back in 2020. It was an abrupt decision that shocked the country’s 200 million TikTok users, but in the four years since, many have found other suitable alternatives.

As Nikhil Pahwa, the Delhi-based founder of tech website MediaNama says, “The ban on Tiktok led to the creation of a multibillion dollar opportunity … A 200 million user base needed somewhere to go.” Other apps have picked up these users since the ban. ‘Digital natives’ are less rusted on to particular apps and services than policy makers assume, with fashions about what is the app to have shifting regardless of government policy.

So, Australia should take its own decisions on TikTok. We should act on the advice of our national security agencies and take advantage of the experience and evidence from other partners and places.  That advice and the pattern of behaviour of the Chinese state lead to one result: the Australian government should seek to have TikTok’s Australian operations no longer tied to a Chinese parent company that is subject to the whims, directions and policies of Xi Jinping and his spy agencies.

Not acting leaves the widest of open doors for espionage and foreign interference reaching into millions of Australian households and businesses.  The Chinese state bans its people from using the social media platforms of other countries because it knows about the power and reach these tools have into others’ populations. So, outrage at other governments acting on this risk from Chinese social media platforms is breathtaking hypocrisy.

TikTok needs to be in non-Chinese ownership so that it is not subject to the jurisdiction and whims of the Chinese regime. Its algorithms and data management need to be transparent to lawmakers and regulators in the countries where millions of its users live, including both the US and Australia – something that would also be a useful regulatory measure for other large social media apps owned by companies outside Beijing’s reach.

If prime minister Albanese is sincere in his formula for dealing with Xi Jinping’s China –  “we need to cooperate with China where we can, disagree where we must and engage in our national interest”, then this is a time when we must disagree with the Party leaders in Beijing and act in our national interest – even if it makes Beijing unhappy and shows the limits of the ‘stabilised’ bilateral relationship.

This article was first published by Defence Connect.

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