Australian users of TikTok are officially on notice: the Chinese government can, if they wanted, find out their location, email, phone number and what videos they watch on the short video platform.
This is the logical conclusion of an admission by TikTok Australia to opposition spokesperson for cyber security and countering foreign interference James Paterson. Responding to the senator’s letter asking whether Chinese staff could still access the data of users outside of China, TikTok Australia director of public policy Brent Thomas confirmed that Australian data could be accessed by users “wherever they’re based” even though it’s stored on servers in Singapore and the US.
The letter notes that Australian data has never been given to the Chinese government and that there are limits on which staff can access data. Despite the existence of China’s national intelligence law that requires any person or organisation to assist in state intelligence-gathering, TikTok Australia’s qualifications do nothing to dispel the threat that the Chinese government could get its hands on it in the future.
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This revelation has been front-page news in Australia’s major news publications. But how are users of the platform reacting to this information? Some of TikTok’s big creators told Crikey that they weren’t leaving anytime soon.
Joel Kandiah is a creator from Perth whose @thehistoryofmoney account has grown to more than 113,000 followers. He’s concerned about the news but says he doesn’t think TikTok’s data-harvesting practices are any different to Facebook’s, Apple’s or Google’s.
“The moment you use any app that has access to your data, it’s going to be compromised regardless of where they’re from,” he said in a message.
Kandiah believes that individual users have a responsibility to be careful about how they use technology and the consequences of that use.
Freelance model and activist Stephanie Steer, whose @bimbovangelsing account has more than 130,000 followers, shares a similar stance on using TikTok because she believes other social media platforms are just as bad.
Like many other creators, Steer has accounts with most major social media players. But she’s unusually privacy conscious and aware of ad-tech surveillance: “I used to just get cash out and not have Flybuys because I didn’t want anyone knowing what products I liked.”
Now, Steer is resigned to the fact that tech companies are harvesting users’ data, and will continue to use the app.
Miles Glaspole runs the @TikTok10quiz account where he runs a daily quiz show for his 615,000 followers. Despite professing to not know much about TikTok’s data practices, Glaspole tells me his time working for an ad agency gave him a rare insight into how user data can be used to profile and target advertising.
“The fact that they can pick up you’re a 40-something, Liberal-voting, caravan-owning, aspiring juggler from the inner west was mind-blowing to a young politics grad at the time,” he said.
He says that the age group who are most likely to use TikTok are “way past caring” about who’s got their data because they can’t do anything about it.
“Our privacy’s already gone,” he said in a message. “May as well spend time on an app we enjoy.”