Even if TikTok and other apps collect your data, what are the real consequences?

By now, most of us know that social media companies collect vast amounts of our information. By doing so, they can target us with ads and monetize our attention. The latest chapter in the data privacy debate concerns one of the world’s most popular apps among young people – TikTok.

Yet, anecdotally, it seems that the potential risks are of little concern to young people. Some were interviewed by The Project this week regarding the risk of their TikTok data being accessed from China.

They said it wouldn’t stop them from using the app. “Everyone has access to everything right now,” one person said. Another said they had “not much to hide from the Chinese government”.

Are these assessments fair? Or should Australians really worry about another social media company taking their data?

What’s going on with TikTok?

During a 2020 Australian parliamentary hearing on foreign interference through social media, TikTok representatives pointed out: “TikTok Australia data is stored in the United States and Singapore, and the security and confidentiality of this data is our top priority.”

But as Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyst Fergus Ryan observed, it’s not about where the data is. storedbut who has to access.

On June 17, BuzzFeed released a report based on 80 leaked internal TikTok meetings that appeared to confirm access to US TikTok data by Chinese actors. The report references multiple instances of data access by TikTok’s parent company, China-based ByteDance.



Read more: Concerns about TikTok supplying user data to Beijing are back – and there’s good evidence to back them up


Then in July, TikTok Australia’s director of public policy, Brent Thomas, wrote to shadow cybersecurity minister James Paterson regarding China’s access to Australian user data.

Thomas denied being asked to provide data from China or having “provided data to the Chinese government” – but he also noted that the access is “based on the need to access the data”. There is therefore good reason to believe that Australian user data may accessible from China.

Is TikTok worse than other platforms?

TikTok collects rich consumer insights, including personal information and behavioral data from people’s activity on the app. In this regard, it is no different from other social media companies.

They all need oceans of user data to send us ads and run data analytics behind a shiny facade of cute cats and trendy dances.

However, TikTok’s corporate roots extend to authoritarian China – not the United States, where most of our other social media originates. This has implications for TikTok users.

In theory, since TikTok moderates content based on Beijing’s foreign policy goals, it’s possible that TikTok could apply censorship controls on Australian users.

This means that user feeds would be filtered to omit anything that doesn’t align with the Chinese government’s agenda, like support for Taiwan sovereignty, for example. In “shadowbanning”, a user’s posts appear to have been posted for the user themselves, but are not visible to anyone else.

It should be noted that this risk of censorship is not hypothetical. In 2019, information about the Hong Kong protests was reportedly censored not only on Douyin, China’s national version of TikTok, but also on TikTok itself.

Then in 2020, ASPI found that LGBTQ+ related hashtags are being removed in at least eight languages ​​on TikTok. In response to ASPI’s research, a TikTok spokesperson said hashtags may be restricted as part of the company’s localization strategy and due to local laws.

In Thailand, keywords such as #acab, #gayArab and anti-monarchy hashtags were found to be banned.

In China, Douyin adheres to strict national content regulations. This includes censoring information about the Falun Gong religious movement and the Tiananmen Massacre, among other examples.

The legal environment in China requires providers of Chinese Internet products and services to work with government authorities. If Chinese companies do not agree or are unaware of their obligations, they may be hit with legal and/or financial penalties and be forcibly shut down.

In 2012, another social media product run by ByteDance founder Yiming Zhang was forced to shut down. Zhang fell to the political line during a public apology. He acknowledged that the platform deviates from “public opinion guidelines” by not moderating content that goes against “core socialist values”.

Individual TikTok users should seriously consider quitting the app until global censorship issues are clearly resolved.

But remember, it’s not just TikTok

Meta-products, such as Facebook and Instagram, also measure our interests based on the seconds we spend looking at certain posts. They aggregate this behavioral data with our personal information to try to keep us hooked – watching ads for as long as possible.

Some real cases of targeted social media advertising have contributed to “digital redlining” – the use of technology to perpetuate social discrimination.

In 2018, Facebook came under fire for showing some job ads only to men. In 2019, it settled another digital redlining case involving discriminatory practices in which housing ads were targeted at certain users based on “race, color, national origin and religion”.

And in 2021, before the US Capitol breach, announcements of military and defense products were running alongside conversations about a coup.

Then there are the worst-case scenarios. The 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed how Meta (then Facebook) exposed user data to political consultancy Cambridge Analytica without their consent.

Cambridge Analytica collected up to 87 million Facebook user data, derived psychological user profiles and used them to tailor pro-Trump messaging. This probably had an influence on the 2016 US presidential election.

How willing are we to ignore the potential risks of social platforms, in favor of addictive content?
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With TikTok, the most immediate concern for the average Australian user is content censorship, not outright prosecution. But in China, there are recurring cases of Chinese nationals being detained or even imprisoned for using both Chinese and international social media.

You can see how the consequences of massive data collection are not hypothetical. We need to demand more transparency not only from TikTok, but from all major social platforms about how data is used.

Let’s continue the regulatory debate that TikTok has accelerated. We should seek to update privacy protections and build transparency into Australia’s national regulatory guidelines – whatever the next big social media app is.

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