Will TikTok be banned for every Australian? 

For months, governments across the world have rattled their cyber sabres, threatening to cut TikTok off at the knees.

The reach and influence of the popular app, harnessed by everyone from porn stars to politicians is undeniable, with more than one billion monthly users when measured in 2021.

But yesterday, the Albanese government finally swung its own sword, announcing that public servants would soon be banned from having the popular app on their work-issued devices, over fears it could be a secret Chinese tool.

The move made Australia the last nation in the Five Eyes intelligence network – which includes the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and New Zealand – to forbid officials from using the app, over concerns that it could be used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for political interference.

But while TikTok will soon be wiped from the public service’s phones, it raises three key questions for everyday Australian who use TikTok on the train or in front of the TV:

  • Is the security threat as bad as the government makes it out to be?
  • Should I delete the app from my phone?
  • Will it eventually be banned for everyone?

How dangerous is TikTok, really?

It depends on who you ask.

There’s no doubt that TikTok has become a powerful platform that is being used to directly reach new and younger audiences who have long been untethered to traditional broadcasting because of age, interest or, more likely, both.

The ban has, predictably, infuriated TikTok, which is owned by ByteDance, a multibillion-dollar Chinese internet giant, that fiercely denies it poses any risk to national security.

TikTok’s Australian boss, Lee Hunter, said there was no evidence the app was a security risk to Australians.

“We’re extremely disappointed with this decision. In our view, this is driven by politics and not by fact,” Mr Hunter said.

But Fergus Ryan, a China analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said that’s not true.

“We’ve known for years now that TikTok user data is accessible in China, and because of the suite of national security laws that are in place in China, it means that there’s effectively no barrier between user data and the Chinese party state,” he said.

Mr Ryan said that type of data was incredibly valuable to a foreign government.

He said the greater risk facing Australians was political interference because of the “enormous leverage” that China’s government has over ByteDance, due to Beijing’s national security laws.

“It would be trivially easy for ByteDance, having been compelled to by the CCP, to either promote or demote certain political messages, and the effect that has is to distort the political discussions that Australians are having on that app,” he said.

What’s everyone upset about?

The Australian ban follows months of pressure on the Chinese-owned app, which has faced bruising congressional hearings with angry American politicians and been the target of a scathing submission to Australia’s select committee on foreign interference.

Alastair MacGibbon, the chief strategy officer at cybersecurity firm CyberCX, said Chinese national security laws were a key concern for politicians with a ban in the forefront of their minds.

Mr MacGibbon is a former national cybersecurity adviser, the former head of the Australian Cyber Security Centre, and was the nation’s first eSafety commissioner.

“The laws in China compel organisations to do what they say,” he said

“Now, if you’re a Chinese company, why wouldn’t you do that? It’s literally a matter of whether you keep your freedom and your company so, of course, they will comply.”

A bald man wearing glasses is speaking to silhouetted figures.
Alistair MacGibbon is the chief strategy officer at CyberCX and a former national cybersecurity adviser. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Mr MacGibbon said TikTok had a poor track record.

“If you’re a contractor doing work for the government, then your device might be targeted for the purposes of finding out about that work,” Mr MacGibbon said.

“It might be that you’re a journalist and TikTok is upset at the articles that you’re writing, and actually uses that data to track you and find out who your sources are.

“All of those things are real and happen and we have to wake up as a country and ask ourselves not whether a normal government would do this, the question is whether or not the Beijing government would do this.

“The answer, sadly, is yes.”

So will I eventually have to delete TikTok?

Influencers rejoice, probably not.

“I doubt it. I don’t see the Australian government banning TikTok in Australia,”

“I can see why you would make a decision about Huawei sitting inside 5G networks because ultimately that was down to the ability for essentially China to turn off our telephone systems.

“There’s a big difference between that and an app on the telephone.”

But Mr MacGibbon said there needed to be a greater conversation about the use of critical technologies in Australia.

“If we’re ripping cameras out of Parliament House and we’re banning politicians from being able to use TikTok, then we need to start asking why we’re allowing these technologies much more broadly in the economy,” he said.

© 2020 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.
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  1. Why should work issued phones for public service workers have any apps loaded that are not work related? Surely a public servant has no WORK use for TikTok, Facebook, Twitter or Tinder in their daily work environment. These are “social” media sites and should only be used in SOCIAL time and not WORK time when they’re supposed to be “working”.
    Use a private mobile for non-work (social) use, not the one that taxpayers pay for.

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