TikTok china data
(Image: Xu Chen/The Conversation)

TikTok is in hot water, again. Internal meeting recordings obtained by BuzzFeed News revealed that Chinese employees of the short-video platform’s parent company, ByteDance, were still able to access data from the US despite promises that they wouldn’t. It’s reasonable to assume that Australians’ data is also within their grasp. 

So, should you, perhaps as one of the millions of Australians addicted to the platform, be personally concerned about where your data is going? Probably.

It’s old news to most that many companies are trying to collect as much data as possible about each of us at any given moment. From the companies you know about — such as Google and Facebook’s parent company, Meta — to the data brokers who you’ve never heard of — like Acxiom or Quantium buying and selling enormous amounts of information — they’re all trying to make money by selling access to certain groups of people. 

When you use any online service, when you swipe your rewards card, when you walk past a digital billboard, you leave digital breadcrumbs that are being reverse engineered to create a virtual representation of you, usually in the pursuit of selling you things.

To many, that’s disturbing. But the contradiction of modern life is that we also agree to this happening to us — although it’s contested the extent to which our consent to be surveilled and profiled is both informed and volunteered. After all, let’s be honest, it’s not possible to live an ordinary life while also opting out of anything that could possibly track you.

The nightmarish omnipresence of surveillance capitalism doesn’t mean you should be apathetic about TikTok, which, as cyber firm Internet 2.0 co-CEO Robert Potter told Crikey, presents a much more significant risk. While he agrees that our data is siphoned by everyone, companies that reside within China present a larger risk due to the government’s weaponisation of data that is distinct from Western countries. 

“[China] has this weird arrangement where they like to encourage innovation, but the government can never really leave social media companies alone,” he said.

Potter explains that the Chinese government takes a “mosaic” approach to data collection, drawing in huge amounts of data on an individual when it targets them, compared with Australian government bodies who are bound by a much narrower, warrant-based approach. Chinese national security laws compel companies like ByteDance or WeChat, the owner of a mega-popular messaging app, to carry out whatever request the government asks them to — including handing over data on users.

The other aspect is how TikTok can be used to shape discussions outside of China. Potter points to platform censorship around Hong Kong or Xinjiang as proof of how the company, beholden to the Chinese government’s values, can restrict speech elsewhere.

Ultimately, Potter predicts that countries like the US, UK and Australia will end up banning these Chinese social media platforms: “Their norms aren’t democratic. We’re feeding huge amounts of information about our kids into these platforms.”

Until we reach that point, Australian TikTok users should assume that whatever the app knows about them — your location, interests and biometric data like your face and voice — is also known to the Chinese government. Whether that’s enough to wean you off the app is ultimately up to you.