Push for Australia to act on TikTok ‘risk’

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The Coalition has lashed Labor for its “haphazard and inconsistent” approach to TikTok after an audit revealed departments were able to go their own way on banning the app on government devices.

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil earlier this year stood firm in not implementing a broad ban on the app across the public service.

That’s despite the US, Canada and the European Commission having recently made such bans over concerns the data could be accessed in China and subject to Chinese national intelligence laws.

Opposition cybersecurity spokesman James Paterson said an audit had revealed around 25 departments and agencies had outrightly banned the app on workers’ devices.

Those include the education department, finance, the National Disability Insurance Agency and the Australian Electoral Commission.

Meanwhile, home affairs, foreign affairs and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had previously confirmed bans.

Twelve departments and agencies have a partial ban on TikTok on work-issued devices, while at least 11 departments have no restrictions on the app, including the ABC and Australia Post.

Senator James Paterson said the government must act on TikTok and stop the ‘haphazard’ approach. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary RamageSenator James Paterson said the government must act on TikTok and stop the ‘haphazard’ approach. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage

Senator Paterson first raised concerns about the app last July after he was told by TikTok that the user data was accessible in China and therefore subject to national intelligence laws.

Then in December, reports emerged that TikTok’s parent company Bytedance had accessed the data of journalists writing stories critical of the company.

“The risks posed by this app have been apparent for some time, particularly since their July 2022 admission about user data, and the revelations in December that employees of TikTok in China used the app to spy on journalists writing critical articles about the company and lied about doing so,” he said.

He said that Australian government could have “led the world” on banning the app, like the government had done with Huawei.

“The first piece of evidence (that TikTok is posing a risk to our national security) is that our closest friends and allies are acting to protect themselves from this threat, but we also now have a smoking gun,” he said, making reference to the journalists.

“If they can do it to a journalist, they can do it to a public servant or a bureaucrat, and I don’t think that’s a risk we should tolerate.”

TikTok has been banned from government devices in the US and Canada. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty ImagesTikTok has been banned from government devices in the US and Canada. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

He said there was room for nuance, with TikTok used by agencies like the National Gallery and Tourism Australia for marketing purposes.

“It doesn’t have to be a government-wide ban, but at the moment there’s no clear direction centrally from the government,” he said.

He said the reason the previous government had not taken action was because the evidence of the risk posed by the app had not been there.

He said allies’ actions and the government now knowing about the journalists’ data indicated the situation had changed and called on the government to act.

As it stands, MPs and senators can use TikTok on “discrete” devices but should avoid doing so on their work devices.

In its own submission to the senate committee on foreign interference through social media, TikTok said the app should not be used as a “political football”.

“As we embrace the opportunity to contribute to these discussions, we note as well that much has been made of our company’s Chinese heritage,” TikTok said.

“We are proud of our heritage, and it’s important to note that we operate no differently to other global companies and claims to the contrary are unsubstantiated by evidence.”

In a statement on Monday, a TikTok spokesperson said “just like many private sector organisations, commonwealth government agencies have policies that may restrict the use of social media and messaging apps on devices. In the case of these departments, we understand the restrictions apply to a range of apps and software, not just TikTok”.

Ms O’Neil is conducting a review of all social media platforms, and will consider recommendations at the completions of the reviews, but has ruled out completely banning TikTok.

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