5 April 2023

The clock is ticking for TikTok as government moves to ban it

| Andrew McLaughlin
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TikTok phone app

Australia is set to follow other countries in banning the popular TikTok app from government devices. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The Federal Government will ban the TikTok short-form video app from all government-owned devices as the fear of infiltration of devices and data harvesting by the Chinese-owned app grows.

Before any formal announcement was made by the government, the ACT and Victorian Governments appeared to have gazumped their federal colleagues by revealing their intentions to either follow suit or consider similar restrictions themselves.

Their statements come after all state governments were reportedly briefed on the Commonwealth’s ban Monday afternoon.

In a brief statement, an ACT Government spokesperson said: “The ACT Government was notified yesterday of an imminent announcement from the Commonwealth to ban TikTok from government devices.

“Based on the Commonwealth’s advice, and the desirability of national cybersecurity consistency, the ACT Government will consider similar restrictions on Territory Government devices at a Security and Emergency Management meeting of Cabinet tomorrow.”

When asked on Tuesday afternoon if it’s a risk to have TikTok on government devices, should the general population also be concerned, Minister for Finance Katy Gallagher told journalists: “This has been informed by security agencies’ advice, on work that’s been done and provided to government.

“So, that’s the decision we’ve taken, is around government-issued devices.

“Obviously, we’re always clear with people that they should be aware of risks about particular apps, social media, etc,” she added.

“And there is a whole lot of information that people can access about that if they choose to online through eSafety and… some other Government websites, but the decision has been taken about government-issued devices based on that advice from the security agencies.”

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In a statement, a spokesperson for Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said: “We’ve always said we’ll follow the Commonwealth’s guidance when it comes to cybersecurity – and we’ll now work on implementing these changes across the public service as soon as possible.”

Despite the ACT and Victorian announcements, Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus rather awkwardly refused to be drawn on the issue while speaking to ABC News Breakfast Tuesday morning, saying only that, “We’ve been considering advice from our security agencies in a measured way, as is appropriate. When we’re ready to make an announcement, we will.”

Australia will join its five-eyes partners — the US, Canada, the UK and New Zealand — in banning the app on government devices.

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As it is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, TikTok is subject to China’s intelligence laws and is therefore obliged to comply with Chinese Government requests to access its data.

This was largely confirmed by TikTok US CEO Shou Zi Chew, who acknowledged in a June 2022 letter to the US Senate that said, “China-based employees can have access to TikTok user data” of US app users.

But in a July 2022 letter, TikTok’s Director of Public Policy for Australia and New Zealand, Brent Thomas, told Shadow Minister for Cyber Security Senator James Patterson that, “TikTok is an entertainment platform with a mission to inspire creativity and bring joy.

“In September 2020, TikTok representatives appeared before the Australian Senate’s Select Committee of Foreign Interference through Social Media, and provided considerable detail about our stringent data and security practices,” the letter reads.

“During 2020 … reported investigations initiated by the then Coalition Government … found no evidence to suggest that the security interests of the nation, or individual citizens, were being compromised by TikTok.”

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The ABC reported on Tuesday morning that TikTok had not been informed about the government’s decision, but was “extremely disappointed” by the reports.

“In our view, this is driven by politics and not by fact,” TikTok’s general manager in Australia Lee Hunter told the ABC. “And we’re also disappointed with the fact that TikTok and the millions of Australians who use it every day will find out about this decision through the media, despite repeated efforts from our end.

“We’re very keen to meet with [Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil] and anyone in government to explain the truth of the platform,” he added. “We know that we have to work harder than other platforms because of the scrutiny we get.”

In 2022 Minister O’Neil implemented a review on the potential of TikTok and other platforms to access data on devices and to be used by foreign government agencies to access that data. Government departments reportedly set their own policies on the use of the app while the review was underway.

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