A Brisbane cyber lawyer says calls to ban video app TikTok amid claims it‘s a data gathering tool of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may be justified, if extreme, due to Australia’s stand off with China.

Brisbane cyber lawyer Sandy Zhang says media reports of fears that Tik Tok, owned by a Chinese company, is being used by the Chinese Communist Party to track users is heightening fears amid a stand off between Australia and China and a deteriorating relationship between the countries.

Tik Tok is used by 1.6 million Australians including Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.

Sandy is a Senior Associate with EAGLEGATE Lawyersand says in many regards Tik Tok is no different to all social media apps which track their users.

I very much doubt that Tik Tok is a worse offender than any other typical social media platform like Facebook or Snapchat, or even search platforms like Google. All social media apps track their users.

They track everything from how you interact with posts on your news feed, what type of posts generally cause you to click on a link, watch a video or press that “read more” button etc. They build an entire consumer profile for each account, and there is a lot more information there than the personal information that you give like name, phone number and email.

Why do you think Google puts so much effort into Chrome when it’s free? It’s because they get access to ALL of your internet history instead of just when you use Google, and that in turn improves their ad targeting.

The difference here is that Tik Tok, launched in 2016, is owned by a Chinese company, which means that it can be influenced by the CCP.

“In this sense it is no different to WeChat, another Chinese-owned social media messaging app that is popular among Chinese people around the world.

“However, Tik Tok has gained mainstream popularity outside of China, unlike WeChat. This creates a theoretical possibility of the CCP gaining access to massive amounts of personal data from overseas.

When it comes to what is possible, it can be hard to separate fear from reality. Risks certainly exist, but probably not in the way that most mainstream media have been reporting it.

For perspective, every Chinese company of a respectable size would have a department dedicated to relations with the government. They’ll also almost certainly have some senior staff members who are connected to the CCP, or are themselves a party member with mostly superficial party duties.

It’s simply a necessary part of business in that political environment, and not an indication that Tik Tok is somehow directly working with or controlled by the CCP.

The Chinese Communist Party is also unlikely to be monitoring personal information on a massive scale, even though they technically have the power to gain access to the data from Tik Tok.

Gathering and storing data is one thing, continuously processing that data is another thing altogether. I doubt even the CCP has enough resources to do that in any meaningful or useful way. Instead, consistent with its practice with WeChat, CCP would have a system that monitors the data for only specific things, like banned keywords, images or videos.

People who continuously share banned content would then be flagged and may be monitored more closely. They’re not likely interested in what you bought on eBay last week.

However, in the case of prominent figures using Tik Tok, the concerns can become more serious. Although mass monitoring is impractical, targeting specific persons to be more closely monitored is quite easy and is almost certainly being done right now on WeChat and Tik Tok,” he adds.

Sandy says in Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ case, information like his contacts, hobbies, interests, Tik Toks sent or viewed, direct messages etc could potentially be scrutinised by the CCP.

This information could be used more subtly to attempt to influence him in political engagements, or used in a more nefarious manner through phishing schemes, hacking or even extortion.

There are also other national security concerns in specific scenarios – for example, it may be possible to track the movements of military personnel through their use of Tik Tok.

Members of the armed forces in Australia and the US have been told not to use the app on any Defence-issued device.  Sandy feels banning the app nationwide might seem a bit extreme, but when relations are hostile, it may be justified.

It would be difficult to enforce a partial ban that applies only to military and government personnel, and it often only takes one person to leak sensitive information.

To the average Tik Tok user in Australia, unless Australia decides to ban Tik Tok completely, things will probably be business as usual.

However, anyone who uses Tik Tok (or WeChat for that matter) and has been outspoken against the CCP or has shared anti-CCP content should be cautious about travelling to China, especially as relations between Australia and China sour.

It would be unusual for a non-Chinese resident to be arrested in China for anti-CCP activities except in the most extreme cases, but isolated cases of arrest of Australian citizens have occurred in the past, and no one would want to be the example.

There’s a possibility TikTok representatives could be called before an ongoing Senate Inquiry into Foreign Interference on social media.

“Even though it can be difficult to distinguish between fears and reality, the problem of the CCP at least having the ability to intervene and direct Tik Tok to use the data it gathers in unethical ways is real,” Sandy warns.

If one were to take the cynical view, the use case is also definitely there.

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