Over 1.6 million Australians, including celebrities, athletes, and artists—but mostly teenagers—populate social media feeds daily with TikTok videos, however, concerns continue over data security with the Beijing-backed app.
U.S. lawmakers have, in the last six months, mobilised against TikTok over fears it may be a proxy for Chinese communist surveillance.
The Australian Defence Force earlier this year banned the use of TikTok.
What Is TikTok All About?
TikTok is a music video sharing application, which currently has 800 million active users globally and is one of the fastest-growing apps in the world.
According to Sensor Tower, TikTok has been downloaded 2 billion times from the App Store and Google Play and it frequently ranks as one of the most downloaded apps on iPhones.
TikTok allows users to film, create, and upload short music videos of themselves. Generally, TikTok videos are overlayed with music and run for less than 15 seconds.
Australian cricketer David Warner has developed a million-plus following on TikTok in recent months, creating videos of his family as they pass time during the virus lockdown.
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Connecting with Young Australians
According to a Roy Morgan survey released on Feb. 24, over 1.6 million Australians used TikTok in the month of December 2019. Over 1.2 million of those were from Australia’s two youngest generations.
Currently, 21 percent of Generation Alphas in Australia used the app, this generation is born after 2006, with over 537,000 individuals.
Meanwhile, the survey also found 14 percent of the Generation Z cohort use TikTok, this generation is born after 1991. There are 670,000 people in this category.
Michele Levin, CEO of Roy Morgan said Generation Alpha’s used TikTok more widely than other well-known social media apps including Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.
“Only the ubiquitous YouTube is more widely used, and the videos on YouTube are more readily accessible without the need for signing up for an account,” she said.
“The usage of TikTok is also noticeably skewed to young women and girls. Women and girls make up over two-thirds of those who use TikTok overall,” he said.
TikTok’s Beijing Connection
TikTok is owned by Beijing-based tech firm ByteDance. ByteDance was founded by Zhang Yiming in 2012 and specialises in the development of artificial intelligence (AI).
In 2016, it created Douyin, an app similar to TikTok which is only available in China. TikTok is the version used outside China and came about after Bytedance’s 2017 acquisition of popular music app Musical.ly.
In 2018, CEO Zhang Yiming sought to strengthen his company’s allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party by declaring that Bytedance would “deepen cooperation with authoritative media,” and would seek to increase dissemination of “authoritative media content” and “media voices.”
The app has allegedly been found censoring content related to Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, and the meditation practice Falun Gong.
Controversially, last year Bytedance, as well as telecommunications firm Huawei, were accused of assisting the Chinese regime with surveillance and aiding human rights abuses against the Uighur minority in China’s Xinjiang province.
US Lawmakers Close In
TikTok currently faces government action on several fronts over security concerns in the United States.
Lawmakers have cited concerns around the 2017 National Intelligence Law in China that mandates local companies must “support, assist and cooperate with state intelligence work.”
The implied power of the law forces China-based companies to provide data to authorities when requested.
On March 12, Senators Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) introduced the No TikTok on Government Devices Act, which bans federal officials and employees from using TikTok on their government-issued phones.
Hawley said in a press release TikTok was a “major security risk.”
“The company (TikTok) even admitted it collects user data while their app is running in the background—including the messages people send, pictures they share, their keystrokes and location data, you name it,” he said.
“TikTok is owned by a Chinese company that includes Chinese Communist Party members on its board, and it is required by law to share user data with Beijing.”
On April 21, representative Jim Banks (R-Ind.) launched the Online Consumer Protection Act of 2020, meaning a warning or disclaimer needed to be displayed for foreign-developed apps and would appear once users turned it on. The warning would state clearly which companies owned the app, and what country’s jurisdiction it was under.
Banks said in a statement, “Parents and consumers have a right to a warning that by downloading some apps like Russia’s FaceApp or China’s TikTok, their data may be used against the United States by an adversarial or enemy regime.”
More recently on May 15, a companion bill to the No TikTok on Government Devices Act was introduced to ban TikTok on all government devices.
TikTok in the United States has been at pains to assure the public and lawmakers of their concerns. On March 11, it launched a Transparency Center in Los Angeles that would allow outside experts to watch how TikTok teams go about moderating content.
On April 29, TikTok’s Chief Information Officer Roland Cloutier said in a press release that it was good that “tough questions” were being asked of technology firms, and TikTok was focused on building an “outstanding security team.”
“In the weeks since I began, my team and I have been undertaking a broad review of TikTok’s security, our infrastructure, and practices, testing current practices and actively seeking to anticipate what we will need in the future,” he said.
“Our goal is to minimize data access across regions so that, for example, employees in the APAC region, including China, would have very minimal access to user data from the EU and U.S.”