Victorian government department bans, then unbans, social media app over spy fears

Victorian government department bans, then unbans, social media app over spy fears

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Other government departments have not directed staff to remove the app, but the federal Department of Defense has already banned TikTok from work devices.

Last year, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil ordered her department to investigate TikTok’s data harvesting over concerns that staff in China could access the personal information of Australians. The investigation’s findings will be known in a few months.

Before DECA’s backlash, the special shadow secretary of state, David Davis, said DECA should share its advice with other departments if it had a genuine fear that government information could be compromised.

A TikTok spokesperson denied that its staff in China had access to personal information about Australians.

“TikTok Australia is committed to building on our efforts to be trustworthy and reliable partners, through transparency and cooperation with all governments,” she said. “We would welcome the opportunity to engage with any government agency that may have questions about us.”

Fergus Ryan, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said he was surprised that state and federal departments were taking so long to make the “wise” decision to block TikTok on work devices.

“It has been clear for several years now, since at least 2020, that the data collected by TikTok is accessible in China.”

Ryan said that while all major social media apps monitor user behavior to some extent, TikTok should be of particular interest to lawmakers given the tensions in the Indo-Pacific region.

“The line [being espoused by TikTok’s parent company] is that the Chinese government has never asked for TikTok user data and if they did, they would refuse,” he said. “Which sounds nice, but it’s just clever wording to avoid the real issue – which is that the Chinese government doesn’t have to ask.

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“The party state is already so intertwined with the company, both via the Chinese Communist Party committees within the company and now this ‘golden share’ arrangement where they literally sit on the board with [parent company] ByteDance.

“Furthermore, Chinese law stipulates that Chinese citizens are obliged to cooperate with the authorities in intelligence matters, information gathering and – when they do so – they are not allowed to talk about it. So if it happens, they won’t be able to talk about it anyway.”

About a third of Australian internet users, or 7 million people, use TikTok.

The Victorian Public Sector Commission’s code of conduct states that public servants must be mindful of privacy and security, among other principles, while using social media.

“Staff must ensure that the privacy and confidentiality of information obtained at work is protected at all times and treated in accordance with applicable laws and policies,” the code says.

The Australian Signals Directorate, the national agency responsible for information security, states that the terms of use and privacy policies for social media and messaging apps – including Facebook, Instagram and TikTok – can change at short notice.

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