By Dorothy Thompson
When I was young, the sound of my Grandfathers hall clock was something soothing, comfortable, secure. It was a constant in a much simpler life. It was even subject of a much-loved poem.
“My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf. So it stood ninety years on the floor. It was taller by half than the old man himself. Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.” And so the much-loved poem went on.
But sadly today those constant dulcet tones, are no longer as simple and pure as they once were. Grace Tobin from the ABC’s 7.30 program reports on the sinister and more worrying side of a Chinese App TikTok.
“TikTok is under scrutiny in Australia for its ties to China, with some of the country’s top cyber and national security minds warning the app could potentially be used by Beijing authorities to influence and monitor millions of Australian users.
The wildly popular app, which boasts half a billion users, is the first Chinese-owned social media platform to seriously crack the western world.
Fergus Ryan, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), warned parents of young users not to be fooled by TikTok’s similarities to US-owned platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
The amount of data that all these apps collect on their users is very concerning,” he told 7.30”.
“But the key difference between Facebook and Instagram and TikTok is that there really isn’t much of a firewall between Chinese tech companies and the Chinese state.”
China could use data for ‘nefarious purposes’
“Like most social media apps, TikTok collects a huge amount of personal information about its users by demanding access to their phone’s camera, microphone, contact list and location using GPS tracking.
Andrew Hastie is concerned that data from TikTok will allow the Chinese Government to influence future leaders.
Federal MP and chairman of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, Andrew Hastie, fears that TikTok could be sharing that private information with authorities in Beijing”.
“China’s National Intelligence Law of 2017 means the Chinese Government can compel businesses to share information with them,” he told 7.30.
“So, I doubt if our information is secure when it’s owned by Chinese companies.”
“He believes TikTok poses a potential national security threat to Australia, even though at this stage the app is mostly used by teenagers”.
“TikTok is largely used by teenagers but they’re our future leaders,” Mr Hastie said.
“They’re our future political, economic, cultural and military leaders and we need to protect their information long term.
“I certainly don’t want my children’s data going to a foreign country who might use it for nefarious purposes.”
“Mr Hastie’s warning is backed by Labor MP Tim Watts, who sounded the alarm over TikTok’s alleged censorship in a speech to Parliament in December”.
“Cyber-security experts have told 7.30 the concerns are legitimate and more needs to be done to find out exactly where Australian data is ending up, and what it is being used for”.
TikTok users in the dark
Ellen and Carrie Hobday
“Carrie Hobday allowed her 14-year-old daughter Ellen to sign up to TikTok last year”.
“I could hear Ellen in her room jumping around and dancing around and I went in and that’s what she was doing,” she told 7.30.
“I think for her she likes doing acting, so I think it’s a creative outlet for her.”
“The Sydney mother has also downloaded the app to better understand how it works.
But like most parents, Ms Hobday’s main concern about TikTok has been who is viewing Ellen’s videos, not who owns the app or what it does with her daughter’s data”.
“It’s a concern for me that any of that information would be in anyone’s hands, to be honest with you,” she said.
“But I didn’t know TikTok was a Chinese company, so I guess I hadn’t had those thoughts before I found that out.”
“Chinese ownership not something teens think about
TikTok influencer Olivia Plant has 1.4 million followers.
Olivia Plant is one of Australia’s most popular TikTokers.
She spends hours a day sharing lip-syncing videos with her 1.4 million followers”.
“You can make any videos you want,” she told 7.30.
“It can go up to 60 seconds but people usually keep it to 15 seconds.
“You can post comedy videos, relatable videos, cooking videos, anything. And it might do well, it might not, you never really know with TikTok.”
Ms Plant said she knew the app was Chinese owned but that doesn’t affect her love of using TikTok.
“It’s not something I really think about on there,” she told 7.30.
“I don’t think anybody, especially around my age group, thinks about it.”
Australian Defence Force bans app
Concerns around the extent of TikTok’s artificial intelligence capabilities, including facial recognition, may have contributed to a recent decision by the Australian Defence Force barring the app from use on work devices.
It follows a similar ban by US military forces.
But Mr Hastie is urging the ADF to go even further.
“I think it’s a very prudent and wise move that the ADF has banned TikTok,” he said.
“And I would go as far as to say, not just work phones or devices but also personal devices.
“The world that we live in now is so much different to what it was during the Cold War.
“Espionage can be conducted on social media platforms. We have to be far more cautious about all these tech platforms.
Not all Australian politicians share the same concerns.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is a regular user of Tik Tok and his posts videos of both his work and private life.
According to a spokesman for Mr Andrews, the TikTok account has been set up as a way of reaching new audiences.
“TikTok is one of the fastest growing platforms in the world, so it was an easy decision for us to get on there,” he said.
“We see it as a way of making the work of government more accessible, and have a bit of fun along the way.”
Mr Andrews is thought to be the first Australian politician to start an account on this app.
In a recent post, the premier is seen walking through parliament to the tune of “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by Scottish duo The Proclaimers.
Other short-form videos on his account show work on the Metro Tunnel, Bruce the therapy dog helping paramedics, and clips spruiking government policies such as providing free tampons and pads to girls in government schools.
It would appear to CTL at it is a bald face attempt by Andrews to endeavour to become more socially reverent to the left wing and the younger uninformed market as a cool hip dude. But one has to ask at what potential cost? Additionally why is the Premier targeting an app used mostly by people who are too young to vote?
Digital marketing expert Brent Coker from Melbourne University said the Premier’s entry into TikTok was most likely about “association building”.
“It’s not really about appealing to the younger age group, they find it slightly amusing, it’s more about demonstrating … this idea that he’s relevant in terms of he knows what’s happening,” Dr Coker said.
“Politicians try to build themselves up in a similar way that brands do, so that when people think about them, certain things run through their minds.
“The population who do have kids of that age who use TikTok, they know [what it is].
“Ultimately what they want is the voters to think, ‘Oh, you’re kinda like me’.”
Swinburne University PhD candidate Milovan Savic, who is researching how pre-teens use social media, said he thinks TikTok’s appeal for politicians comes down to the app’s design.
“These videos are like amateur-type videos, so I think it appears more authentic when you create content for them, rather than having a marketing team with professional cameras creating videos,” he said.
A spokesman for the Premier said he was unconcerned about his personal data potentially being accessed by a company with possible ties to the Chinese Communist Party. One has to wonder what universe Mr Andrews lives in.
“We see TikTok as a way of making the work of government more accessible to all Victorians,” the statement said.
“Telecommunications security is rightly a matter for the Federal Government and its agencies.
“We have no concerns.”
‘I wouldn’t call it content moderation; I’d call it censorship’
Analyst Fergus Ryan is concerned that TikTok is censoring content.
As an expert in Chinese social media, Fergus Ryan has embarked on a year-long study of TikTok and another Chinese-owned app called WeChat, looking into both platforms as potential tools for censorship and surveillance by Beijing authorities.
He is concerned TikTok is restricting, and even deleting, material Beijing doesn’t like.
“We’ve actually had the content moderation guidelines used in TikTok leaked to the media and what those content moderation guidelines show is that TikTok’s approach to content moderation is more like what you and I would think is censorship,” he said.
Among topics deemed sensitive are the “three Ts”: Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan.
“Censorship and propaganda don’t have to be done in a very obvious way,” Mr Ryan said.
“For example, you don’t have to have a video completely deleted for censorship to take place. Instead, they could use something called ‘shadow-banning’.
“That means when content is sent out by a user, and they think that their followers have seen it, but in fact, it’s not being shown to anyone at all.”
There is also anecdotal evidence emerging online of users who have had their videos censored.
In November, TikTok was forced to apologise to a young American woman whose video about detension of Uyghur Muslims in China went viral before her account was blocked by the app.
In a statement to 7.30, a TikTok spokesperson said it “does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China”.
“Earlier this year, we added greater clarity to our Community Guidelines, giving users far more detail around how we define harmful or unsafe content that is not permitted on the platform,” the statement said.
TikTok also claimed user data is stored in Singapore and the US, not China. But Mr Ryan said he believed Australian data still ends up in Beijing because that’s where the app’s engineers are based.
“The app needs to be updated. The app needs to evolve and get better,” he said.
“And the people who do that are the engineers.
“It could very well be the case that data is being stored in the United States. But it’s highly likely that same data is being accessed by Beijing-based engineers in order to improve the app.”
When contacted for comment, the Chinese Embassy said: “As we understand, TikTok operates outside China, it should abide by the local laws.”
TikTok to open Sydney office
Despite regulatory pushback, TikTok is opening offices around the world.
TikTok is expected to be scrutinised by a new federal parliamentary inquiry later this year.
Proposed by Labor and backed by the Government, it will examine the risk posed to Australia’s democracy by foreign interference through social media.
But TikTok and parent company Bytedance appear unperturbed, with plans to open a Sydney office in the near future.
“They’re serious about the Australian market, and they really want to increase their business here,” Mr Ryan said.
In recent weeks, the company has been advertising for a number of roles within the Sydney office.
One position posted online is for a role titled “Head of Public Policy”, with responsibilities that include building and establishing relationships with “local and national policymakers, government authorities and advisors”, as well as monitoring “political and social events in Australia”.
Mr Ryan said it is not surprising the company is looking to hire what is essentially a lobbyist or government relations officer.
“TikTok has been facing a huge amount of regulatory pushback all around the world, from India to the United States,” he said.
“It knows it needs to be able to knock on the right doors here in Canberra, to ensure that it has a viable business tomorrow.”
It is these things that send shivers up the spine of parents around the World. It is up to our authorities to take positive action to protect our community.