China could be using TikTok to spy on Australians, but banning it isn’t a simple fix



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Paul Haskell-Dowland, Edith Cowan University and James Jin Kang, Edith Cowan University

In an age of isolation, video sharing platform TikTok has emerged as a bonding force for many. But recent headlines allege the service, owned by Beijing-based company ByteDance, is feeding users’ data to the Chinese Communist Party.

Earlier this week, the Herald Sun reported an unnamed federal MP was pushing for the app to be banned.

Following suit, Liberal senator Jim Molan said TikTok was being “used and abused” by the Chinese government, while Labor senator Jenny McAllister called on TikTok’s representatives to face the Select Committee on Foreign Interference Through Social Media.

TikTok has denied the accusations and rebuffed suggestions it should be banned in Australia.

But why is the federal government examining this app so closely? And could it really be a tool used by the Chinese government to spy on us?

A growing following

With a reported two billion downloads worldwide, TikTok’s Australian market is also significant. It has an estimated 1.6 million Aussie users, mostly aged 16-24 but with a growing number of older users too.

Simply, users generate short videos that are shared in the app, with many celebrities also signing up. But although TikTok seems to offer carefree entertainment, is there a darker side?

Australian television presenter Andrew Probyn had an unexpected TikTok moment.

What information is collected?

When installed, TikTok asks users to grant several permissions, including the use of the camera, microphone and contact list. However, it may also collect location data, along with information from other apps on the device.

Last year, a proposed class action lawsuit filed against TikTok in California claimed the company gathered users’ data, including phone numbers, emails, location, IP addresses, and social network contacts.

The lawsuit also stated TikTok concealed the transfer of data (including biometric data), and continued to harvest it even after the app was closed. This would mean when a user shoots a video and clicks the “next” button, the video could be automatically transferred to servers – without the user’s knowledge.




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Where is the data stored?

While TikTok’s headquarters are in Beijing, Australian general manager Lee Hunter recently claimed Australian users’ data was stored in Singapore.

A major challenge in sorting the truth from fiction lies in how we define “data”. While TikTok users’ details and videos may be stored in Singapore, there’s still potential for data to be extracted from this video content and the device and sent to China’s servers (although this hasn’t been proven to have happened).




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Hypothetically, it would then be possible for Chinese authorities to use biometric data to identify people using facial recognition. It would also be possible to map rooms and locations by using “feature extraction” (a machine learning method) on videos.

This could then aid the creation of new, advanced deepfake videos potentially targeting specific people.

While this may seem far-fetched, there have already been preemptive TikTok bans within major organisations to ensure sensitive information isn’t leaked.

For instance, the app has been banned from devices used by the Australian Defence Department, the US Department of Defence, and even entire countries – with the Indian government announcing a nationwide ban last month.

Privacy issues

ByteDance claims its data is stored in servers in the US and Singapore:

Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law.

TikTok’s privacy policy is ambiguous. As of January, it states:

You should understand that no data storage system or transmission of data over the Internet or any other public network can be guaranteed to be 100% secure.

From a user privacy perspective, TikTok has access to a device’s location and a user’s personal information. Although TikTok’s servers may be located outside China, it’s very difficult (if not impossible) to confirm where this data could end up, or what it could be used for.

While the location of servers can be important, possession of data is more relevant. Once data is obtained, it can be used. If data is stored on a server in Australia, for instance, Australian jurisdiction applies. But once it is sent to another country, that country’s laws take precedent.

And if a TikTok user decides to delete their content from their device, or if there is a government-imposed ban, data can’t be retrospectively erased. Once information is transferred, it’s impossible to retract without the cooperation of the organisation or agency concerned (in this case, TikTok).

Can the government actually ban TikTok?

The fact is, enforcing an Australia-wide ban on TikTok isn’t a simple prospect. While the federal government could request the app’s removal from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store, it could only do this for Australian regions and marketplaces.

Users in Australia would still be able to download TikTok from another region’s store, or via a third-party source. Also, banning the app won’t automatically remove it from devices on which it is already installed.

Blocking access to TikTok’s servers would be done in conjunction with internet service providers (such as Telstra and Optus), as they can block access to apps and websites. But users could still use proxies or Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to circumvent these controls.

And even if TikTok was banned, citizen data already handed over would remain stored, and could be accessed for the foreseeable future.




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The Conversation


Paul Haskell-Dowland, Associate Dean (Computing and Security), Edith Cowan University and James Jin Kang, Lecturer, Computing and Security, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Most adults have never heard of TikTok. That’s by design



Children’s engagement with digital devices is often driven by their desire for creative expression, entertainment and social interaction.
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Milovan Savic, Swinburne University of Technology and Kath Albury, Swinburne University of Technology

TikTok is one of the fastest growing social media platforms on the planet, with more than 500 million active users. Only YouTube, Facebook and Instagram boast more.

TikTok allows users to create short videos with music, filters and other features. But while it’s now used globally by young people, many adult social media users have never heard of it. That’s by design.

In 2016, we conducted an ethnographic study on social media use among families with preteen children in Melbourne. Although most young participants in the study were considered by their parents to be “too young” for social media, some had accounts on a new platform called Musical.ly – now known as TikTok.

We soon realised that the preteen demographic was central to Musical.ly’s success – and to its evolution. The rapid increase of smartphone ownership among preteens presented a relatively uncaptured potential user base for social media.

Many big players have made recent attempts to capture this particular audience. Snapchat’s SnapKidz, YouTube Kids and most recently Facebook’s Messenger Kids all focused on creating a “child-friendly” version of the main app.

The creators of Musical.ly did their homework. They not only identified potential future users of the app, but also non-users that might hamper their success. In order to reach preteen audiences, social media apps need to get past the gatekeepers of preteen online engagement: the parents.




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Billing itself as a tool for creativity

Musical.ly’s description in app stores promoted it as a creative tool rather than a social media platform.
Author provided

From the beginning, Musical.ly presented itself as a tool for creativity and play rather than a social media platform. This tactic enabled Musical.ly to alleviate parental concerns associated with childrens’ use of social media. The app store description reads: “the world’s largest creative platform.”

Childrens’ engagement with digital devices is often driven by their desire for creative expression, entertainment and social interaction. Musical.ly successfully engineered playfulness and performativity as its key features.

For example, its cleverly coined “best fan forever” feature mimics elements of popular teen culture allowing users to establish a special connection with features like duet videos. “BFFs” individually record their videos of the same song, which the app then combines into a duet. In this way, users are incentivised to spend more time interacting together on the app.

Everything you can do on Instagram

While TikTok still bills itself a “community of global creators”, it’s more than just a toy for children. TikTok allows users to follow and interact with “public” profiles. They can follow each other (reciprocity not required), like and comment on videos, and send direct messages to each other.

In other words, TikTok meets all elements of a social networking site. In fact, the app’s infrastructure largely resembles Instagram.




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From Musical.ly to TikTok

The user base is the most valuable asset of any social media platform. During 2016 and 2017, Musical.ly, a social media start-up from China, was trending among most downloaded apps on both Apple and Google’s app stores.

This led to its acquisition by the Chinese media giant ByteDance for US$1 billion. We have seen similar scenarios before, when a successful start-up is acquired by a bigger player on the market.

When it acquired Musical.ly, ByteDance was mostly focused on news and was largely absent from social media landscape. But it did own a short-video sharing platform branded as Douyin. At the time, Douyin was not well known outside of China.

In 2018, ByteDance decided to merge Douyin and Musical.ly under the name TikTok. While the merger brought some new features, the process was virtually undetectable to users, who kept their accounts and all preexisting content and followers.

In other words, overnight the Musical.ly user database became the TikTok user database. While Musical.ly was more popular among global north, TikTok dominated the Asian market, positioning the newly merged app for a wider global audience reach.

Unwanted attention

In its early days TikTok managed to fly under the radar, but its rapid growth and growing user base has brought the app unwanted public scrutiny.

In 2018 the Indonesian government temporarily banned the app amid accusations it was disseminating pornography and blasphemy. In February 2019, India’s High court requested both Google and Apple remove TikTok from Indian app stores following accusations the platform was spreading pornographic and violent content.

Possibly the largest hit came earlier this year when US Federal Trade Commission fined TikTok a record-setting US$5.7 million (A$8.2 million) for collecting and storing the personal information of people under the age of 13 without obtaining parental consent (as required by law).

As TikTok has come to the public’s attention, parents and commentators have increasingly expressed concerns regarding potential predatory behaviour, bullying and exposure to the age-inappropriate content on the app.




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Challenging US social media dominance

Some may see TikTok as just another social media platform that will soon disappear, but it’s more than that. It’s the first social media platform based in China that commands unparalleled popularity in both Asian and Western markets.

This undermines the dominance of US companies on the global social media market. TikTok’s challenge going forward will be to live up to the promise of networked play and creativity, while ensuring the personal safety and data security of its users.The Conversation

Milovan Savic, PhD Candidate, Swinburne University of Technology and Kath Albury, Professor of Media and Communication, Faculty of Health, Arts and Design, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

TikTok is popular, but Chinese apps still have a lot to learn about global markets



File 20190328 139356 1t02jd3.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
TikTok is a music and video sharing app – and it’s huge.
Denys Prykhodov/Shutterstock

Xu Chen, Queensland University of Technology

If Twitter is the revolutionary version of blogging, TikTok might be the revolutionary version of YouTube. Both Twitter and TikTok encourage their users to post shorter, more fragmented content than their precursors.

TikTok, owned by the Chinese tech giant ByteDance, is the international version of China’s short video sharing app, Douyin.

This is TikTok.

Presently the app is considered one of the most valuable start-ups on the planet.

TikTok is not the first Chinese social media platform to go international, although it is likely the first to gain traction with non-Chinese users globally. WeChat and other Chinese social media platforms that have gone global have, in fact, been predominately used by international Chinese citizens.




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But TikTok is not yet a complete success story. The video-sharing platform may have broken into some non-Chinese markets, but it still has a lot to learn when it comes to outside regulations and culture.

And this is true for Chinese apps generally – they face obstacles refining their global strategies, particularly in navigating China’s notorious internet censorship.

Chinese social media is already going global

Some scholars attribute the success of Chinese social media to the censorship and isolation of China’s internet. This is because China’s Great Firewall prevents foreign social media from entering the Chinese market.

Nevertheless, many China-based social media platforms, such as Weibo, WeChat, You Ku, Blued and Douyin, are seeking to expand into the global market.

WeChat, for instance, tried (and failed) to expand into the non-Chinese overseas market, even hiring soccer star Lionel Messi to front their advertising campaign.

Unlike the global strategies of its peers, ByteDance has never merged Chinese and international digital realms. Instead, it created a separate app, TikTok, specifically for going abroad.

TikTok and Douyin.
Screenshot of the author’s phone

In fact, ByteDance spent A$1.42 billion to purchase Musical.ly, to target the teenage market in the US. On August 2, 2018, ByteDance merged Musical.ly into TikTok, an exceptional boost for TikTok’s success.

TikTok is trying to remove its Chinese roots

Douyin and TikTok are branded as the same product, but they each have distinct characteristics depending on their marketing target. This is wise for ByteDance’s global ambition, given Chinese internet culture doesn’t always translate in a global context.

Interfaces of TikTok (left) vs Douyin (right)
Author provided (screenshot of app interfaces)

For instance, TikTok, unlike Douyin, has a set of westernised stickers and effects on its interface, as you can see in the picture above.

Still, some prevailing Chinese traits appear in TikTok that emerged from Douyin, such as a meibai (美白, literally meaning “beautify whitening”) camera tool.

A preview photo of TikTok from an Australian app store.
Author provided, Author provided

But the pursuit of white skin isn’t a social motivator in most western countries, and technological constraints like this are easily noticed.

Despite ByteDance’s efforts to minimise Chinese culture in its international app, it is still difficult for TikTok to fully understand western culture.

And this is especially true of other Chinese social media platforms, which don’t really endeavour to incorporate global cultures at all. For instance, WeChat’s mobile payment service, WeChat Pay, only allows Chinese citizens with a Chinese bank account to set up an account.

Global app with Chinese regulations

In April 2018, Chinese internet regulators accused ByteDance, of spreading “unwholesome” content through Douyin.

This includes child users who are making money by live streaming or posting advertising videos on Douyin. And to gain more Douyin followers, some children, for instance, have been reported as recording suggestive gestures or dances.

ByteDance’s chief executive Zhang Yiming responded by saying the company would increase its content moderation team from 6,000 staff members to 10,000. But ByteDance refused to disclose how many of these 10,000 moderators would work for TikTok, and whether the content standards for American users are the same as those for Chinese users.




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Chief executive of Common Sense Media James P Steyer said children on TikTok are “significantly too young for it”.

It’s not that the content on TikTok isn’t okay for your 15-year-old. It’s what happens to your six or seven-year-old.

Last month, TikTok was penalised A$8 million by the US Federal Trade Commission due to its violation of Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

ByteDance’s low-level attention to underage users on Douyin and TikTok shows the lack of structural mechanisms in place for protecting children in China. And there are possibilities for more unforeseen circumstances due to nontransparent regulation of social media within China.

While TikTok agreed to pay the largest ever penalty in a children’s privacy case in the US, there is still much for it to learn and adapt in the global market.The Conversation

Xu Chen, PhD candidate; sessional academic, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.