Home Affairs Could Be Looking Into TikTok’s Alleged Aussie Data Harvesting

Home Affairs Could Be Looking Into TikTok’s Alleged Aussie Data Harvesting

Back in July, we brought it to your attention that an investigation found that using TikTok on your phone gives the app access to your personal information. A lot of it, in fact.

Analysis by Australian cybersecurity firm Internet 2.0 found TikTok requests almost complete access to the contents of a phone while the app is in use. That data includes calendar, contact lists and photos.

As a result, the Australian Department of Home Affairs is going to be looking into the data harvesting practices of both TikTok and WeChat.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the TikTok investigation is being initiated amid growing concern that “staff in China can access the personal information of Australians”. It is understood Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil asked the Department of Home Affairs to come back with a briefing by next year on a range of options to tackle social media companies that have “questionable data practices”.

“We’ve got this basic problem here where we’ve got technology companies that are based in countries with a more authoritarian approach to the private sector, and this is a relatively new problem,” O’Neil is quoted by the SMH as saying.

“The fact that we’ve got millions of Australians accessing an app where the usage of their data is questionable is very much a modern security challenge for the country and no country in the world has found the easy solution for managing this.”

In September 2020, when TikTok was becoming a household name, the company told an Australian Senate Select Committee that the personal data it collects from Aussie users is stored on servers located in the United States and Singapore.

“We have strict controls around security and data access … TikTok has never shared Australian user data with the Chinese government, nor censored Australian content at its request,” the company told the committee as part of its inquiry into Foreign Interference Through Social Media.

But Internet 2.0 co-founder and co-CEO Robert Potter said his company’s probe into TikTok also looked at how the app communicates with the rest of TikTok’s infrastructure.

“Under closer examination, we saw it connecting to servers around the world, including in China,” he said.

TikTok stood by its claim, and Potter said it isn’t clear what exactly is being sent to China, only that “the phone regularly connects to servers in China”.

Potter said Internet 2.0 threw over a dozen cybersecurity products at the app and every single time, saw the app connecting to servers in China.

“This leads us to believe that the only reason this information has been gathered is for data harvesting,” the report concludes.

In response, TikTok told Gizmodo Australia that its app is not unique in the amount of information it collects. In fact, it put forward that it is less than many popular mobile apps. The spokesperson also reiterated that TikTok user data is stored in Singapore and the U.S., and that the company has been “clear and vocal” about employing access controls like encryption and security monitoring to secure user data, with the access approval process overseen by its U.S.-based security team.

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