TikTok has confirmed that employees in mainland China can access the data of millions of Australian users of the video-sharing app.
The company provided details after James Paterson, the shadow minister for cybersecurity and countering foreign interference, wrote to TikTok’s Australian general manager on July 3, asking for clarification on local user data.
Paterson, also the chair of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security, publicized the correspondence on social media.
“TikTok Australia has replied to my letter and admitted that Australian user data is also accessible in mainland China, putting it within reach of the Chinese government, despite their previous assurances it was safe because it was stored in the US and Singapore,” he wrote in a Twitter post on July 12.
TikTok Australia has replied to my letter and admitted that Australian user data is also accessible in mainland China, putting it within reach of the Chinese government, despite their previous assurances it was safe because it was stored in the US and Singapore pic.twitter.com/ITY1HNEo6v
— James Paterson (@SenPaterson) July 12, 2022
“Our security teams minimize the number of people who have access to data and limit it only to people who need that access in order to do their jobs.” Brent Thomas, TikTok’s Australian director of public policy, wrote in reply.
“We have policies and procedures that limit internal access to Australian user data by our employees, wherever they’re based, based on need.”
However, Thomas said, “We have never provided Australian user data to the Chinese government, we have never been asked for Australian user data by the Chinese government, and we would not provide it if we were asked.”
TikTok is a hugely popular short-format video platform that allows users to create, share, and view 15-second videos, often featuring singing, dancing, or comedy. Started in China as “Douyin” in September 2016, it attracted 100 million Chinese users within one year.
The app was relaunched as TikTok internationally in September 2017, attracting dozens of A-list celebrity users and partnerships with the NBA, NFL, and Comedy Central.
By 2020, TikTok reported nearly a billion active users worldwide—less than four years after its launch.
However, the app has come under scrutiny because of censorship, its ownership by the Chinese company ByteDance, and reported link to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which can make a direct request for access to the user data under the 2017 National Intelligence Law.
TikTok’s Similar Admission to US Lawmakers
Paterson’s letter comes after reports in the United States that data of TikTok’s U.S. users can be accessed in mainland China.
BuzzFeed reported that 14 statements made by nine different TikTok employees indicated that “engineers in China had access to U.S. data between September 2021 and January 2022, at the very least.”
U.S. engineers had to rely on their China-based colleagues “to determine how U.S. user data was flowing,” as they aren’t allowed to access the data on their own, according to BuzzFeed.
The news outlet also referred to “one Beijing-based engineer as a ‘Master Admin’” who “has access to everything.”
The detail was confirmed by eight different employees in nine statements.
The article pointed out that the statements bear a stark contrast to the sworn testimony by a TikTok executive in an October 2021 Senate hearing that a “world-renowned, U.S.-based security team” handled access to user data.
In a reply letter dated June 30 to U.S. lawmakers, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said that the company’s Chinese staff are provided with access to U.S. data but emphasized that robust controls are imposed under the supervision of a U.S.-based security team.
Chew dismissed the findings from the news report, claiming that they are “incorrect and are not supported by facts.”
In response to a query regarding the disclosure of U.S. data to the CCP, the CEO briefly said that the company hadn’t received such a request and wouldn’t comply if asked.
Call for Albanese Government to Take Action
However, Paterson expressed concern that Australian user data could be accessible to the regime in Beijing.
“TikTok denies they would ever hand over data to the Chinese Communist Party, but this is very hard to believe, given their national security laws,” he wrote.
“It’s now time for the Albanese government to wake up and take action on this serious threat to the privacy of 7 million Australian users.”
Hannah Ng and Daniel Teng contributed to this report.