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TikTok furore exposes data privacy hypocrisy in Australia and the U.S.

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U.S. President Donald Trump, whistle-blower Edward Snowden and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (image by Dan Jensen)

The controversy surrounding the video-sharing app TikTok reminds us that governments and corporations can’t be trusted, writes Rashad Seedeen

THERE ARE THREE things that U.S. President Donald Trump loves: tax loop-holes, all-caps tweets and executive orders. One of his most recent executive orders looks to ban TikTok, a short-video sharing app that’s quite popular with teenagers and young adults. 

So what’s Trump’s beef with this seemingly innocuous app? TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. As such, there are security concerns from government officials and corporate leaders that the Chinese government could use TikTok to spread disinformation and gain access to user data.

There is some truth to such claims.

TikTok has a history of censorship. In late 2019, a U.S. teen, Feroza Aziz, had her TikTok account suspended for posting a subversive make-up tutorial that was actually a plea to look into the treatment of Chinese Uighur Muslims. An investigation by German tech online magazine, Netzpolitik, also found that TikTok has hidden and pushed out of view videos of disabled, LGBTIQ and overweight users.

TikTok does collect personal user data. It also collects data from users’ phones and can share that information with other businesses, organisations and even law enforcement agencies when compelled to do so. But this is no different from every other social media app that we have on our phones.

Tech companies mine our data for profit at alarming rates. A line that I will never forget in the study of mass media is that 'if it’s free online then you are the product'. This has been never so true than in social media.     

It has been well documented that the data-mining company Cambridge Analytica played a key role in Brexit and the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Cambridge Analytica was able to access the data of up to 87 million Facebook user accounts to help Leave EU and Trump campaigners create and coordinate targeted ads, refine language choice in speeches and how to best plot out campaign trails. In 2019, following an investigation into Cambridge Analytica, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook close to $7 billion for its misuse of privacy data.    

In 2013, whistle-blower Edward Snowden revealed a complex web of data mining partnerships between Google, Facebook and Apple and the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) in a program named Prism. Snowden was able to reveal a comprehensive program that violated the privacy rights of citizens across the world that was only possible through secret deals with these blue-chip tech companies.

Of late, Snowden has voiced concerns on the data collection of companies like Facebook and Google in how they are able to create 'perfect records of private lives … then to exploit that for their own corporate enrichment'.  

Closer to home, Australian intelligence agencies between 2011 to 2012 accessed the NSA data from Prism more times than the United Kingdom, producing 310 reports using that data. At the time, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) was prohibited from spying on Australian communications within Australia but could do so by accessing the data from transnational corporations like Google, Apple and Facebook.     

The Coalition Federal Government passed metadata retention laws in 2015 and 2018 that allowed them to collect data for up to two years from telcommunications companies like Optus, Telstra and even the NBN for law enforcement purposes.

The legislation itself was poorly constructed and a variety of smaller agencies have also gained access. Earlier this yea,r the Commonwealth Ombudsman, Michael Manthorpe, raised concerns over the “greyness” on the legal definition of metadata. The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Margaret Stone, also identified the possibility that the collection of metadata could be more invasive than obtaining the actual communication.

Between 2018 and 2019, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) have accessed the metadata of journalists close to 60 times. Last year, with a complete disregard for democracy and press freedoms, the AFP conducted raids upon the home of News Corp journalist, Annika Smethurst and the ABC in Sydney over two separate incidents. Notably, the raid of Smethurst was due to her article on the prospect of the Home Affairs giving increased surveillance powers to the ASD. 

The raids on Smethhurst and the ABC was a thinly veiled threat sent to the media establishment of how the AFP would treat investigations into the government.  

The Australian public’s trust in government when it comes to private data protection is close to zero. The recent COVID-19 contact tracing app was a categorical failure due to the combination of poor functionality and a lack of trust in the government.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Government has an absolutely horrendous record in the suppression of free speech, especially when we look at the recent treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang and democracy activists in Hong Kong.

An imprisoned Uighur fashion model, Merdan Ghappar, revealed in a number of videos his repressive conditions whilst handcuffed to a steel-frame bed in a “re-education camp”. Ghappar’s family have not seen or heard from him for over five months.

Hong Kong media mogul and Chinese Communist Party critic, Jimmy Lai, along with pro-democracy activist, Agnes Chow, were arrested based on the security laws introduced this year.

It is also common knowledge that the Chinese Government holds significant sway over its corporations. On the global stage, however, there is no irrefutable evidence to prove that TikTok data has been compromised or exploited by the Chinese Government (unlike the U.S. and Australia with Prism).

However, like the U.S. and Australia, China has broad security laws that require companies and individuals to provide access and support in intelligence gathering.

Concerns over TikTok are clearly warranted but, as recent history has shown, governments like those in the U.S. and Australia as well as tech companies like Google, Apple and Facebook cannot be trusted either.

Microsoft is currently in talks with TikTok to buy out operations in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Considering Bill Gates and Microsoft’s massive failure with the Windows phone and in the battle with Android, they would be absolutely salivating at the prospect of owning a mobile app with over a hundred million young consumers.

But will they protect private data? That prospect is highly doubtful. In early August, the Washington Post reported that Microsoft could use the data from TikTok for research and development in artificial intelligence. 

The only way forward is legislation that is both national and global in application and places democracy and the protection of privacy ahead of corporate interests and invasive security measures.

Though with the governments of Trump, Scott Morrison and Xi Jinping, I don't like our chances of that.

Rashad Seedeen is a school teacher and a PhD candidate in International Relations from La Trobe University, Melbourne. He tweets at @rash_seedeen.

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