The boss of TikTok Australian has been grilled in a tense interview in which he distanced the company from its Chinese ties amid growing debate about banning the popular app.
Managing director of operations Lee Hunter said the video sharing platform would not give information to the Chinese government if asked but failed to have an answer when pushed on whether the Communist Party or its intelligence agencies could simply take it.
Code hackers have recently revealed the app is able to harvest incredibly in-depth information on its users – from their location data, to their keystrokes, facial mapping, voice recognition and information on other apps such as calendar entries.
‘Our parent company, ByteDance is incorporated outside of China. I think what we see out there is a lot of association with China that is just not true,’ Mr Hunter told 60 Minutes reporter Amelia Adams in an interview airing Sunday.
‘We’re not connected with the CCP… Australian users, their TikTok data is held in the US and Singapore.’
TikTok has about seven million Australian users and has been revealed to be harvesting large amounts of user data
Ms Adams countered his argument saying it was ‘disingenuous’ given TikTok’s recent submission to a government inquiry said it was ‘very proud of its Chinese heritage’.
‘Look, we’re not affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party and I think this is something that, that needs to be corrected.’
‘But your parent company is?’ said Ms Adams.
A recent submission to an Australian Senate committee looking at foreign interference through social media identified senior executives at ByteDance who had strong links with the CCP.
The submission was by put forward by Rachel Lee, Prudence Luttrell, Matthew Johnson and John Garnaut who are experts in the field.
‘It’s really important that Aussies understand that the most important thing to us is keeping their user data safe and secure and respecting their privacy,’ Mr Hunter said.
But Ms Adams pushed: ‘If the CCP or someone from the Chinese government or national intelligence asked for that data?’
‘We wouldn’t give it to them,’ he replied.
‘Well, they wouldn’t ask you, they’d take it?’ Ms Adams said.
Mr Hunter appeared not to have an answer.
‘Well, we’re dealing with hypothetical concerns here that would apply to any Chinese national who’s working for any company that’s based outside of China,’ he said.
‘I think that’s bordering on xenophobia and I think that’s concerning, I think we need to be careful about how we work with China.
‘TikTok is not China, we’re an entertainment platform.’
Amelia Adams pressed Mr Hunter on whether the company could stop CCP or Chinese intelligence agencies just taking the harvested data
A ban on TikTok would be a plus for rivals Snap and Meta after the ByteDance owned company as proven to be the app of choice for plugged in social media users
Australian Senator James Paterson is expected to haul the company’s Australian executives to parliament as he examines how social media platforms could be used for foreign interference.
‘It’s got nothing at all to do with the ethnicity of the people who work for or run TikTok,’ he said.
‘I couldn’t care less about that. I do care about the government that they’re beholden to and whether it was the Chinese Communist Party or any other authoritarian system, we’d have to be concerned about that.’
‘1t is a very powerful actor in our region and that means we have to view this through a different light through a national security lens.’
‘Otherwise we’re being very complacent.’
Senator James Paterson is expected to haul in TikTok Australia executives to Parliament as the government decides whether to follow other countries and ban the app for those employed with defence, intelligence and the government
TikTok previously wrote to Senator Paterson revealing TikTok employees, including those in China, could access data on the app’s seven million Australian users despite that data being stored in the US and Singapore.
And that data is astonishingly thorough.
Thomas Perkins, an American software analyst, pulled apart TikTok’s code for Australian cybersecurity firm Internet 2.0
‘We then went line by line and compared to see if their public statements matched what the app was doing,’ his boss Rob Potter said.
‘They said they didn’t collect GPS location data and we saw that they were heavily collecting location data.’
‘We saw that it was accessing the user’s calendar to see what other things were going on in your diary.’
‘One of the big things that we saw was TikTok specifically said that they don’t have any user data in China.
‘And we saw that when we studied the application that it was regularly connecting to Chinese servers.
‘When TikTok says we don’t have a server on mainland China. That’s definitely not true.’
Australia is expected to soon follow a raft of other countries and ban the app for those in government, intelligence and defence industries.
In the US Congress, the White House, U.S. armed forces and more than half of U.S. states have already banned the use of the app from official devices.
Similar bans have been imposed elsewhere including Denmark, Canada, Great Britain, France and New Zealand, as well as the European Union.
Pressure is building on TikTok to obtain new ownership or lose access to the enormous US market.
In a gruelling five-hour hearing on Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew faced relentless questioning from combative US lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle over the app’s ties to China and its danger to teens.
‘Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,’ Chew, a 40-year-old Harvard-educated former banker and Singapore native said.
‘Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,’ said TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew before the House Committee on Armed Services Committee hearing
Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) speaks as TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew testifies before a |US House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing entitled ‘TikTok: How Congress can Safeguard American Data Privacy and Protect Children from Online Harms’
Nevertheless, the company has been dogged by claims that its Chinese ownership means user data could end up in the hands of the Chinese government or that it could be used to promote narratives favorable to the country’s communist leaders.
In 2019, the Guardian reported that TikTok was instructing its moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square and included images unfavorable to the Chinese government. The platform says it has since changed its moderation practices.
Committee members also showed a host of TikTok videos that encouraged users to harm themselves and commit suicide. Many questioned why the platform´s Chinese counterpart, Douyin, does not carry the same potentially dangerous content as the American product.
Chew responded that it depends on the laws of the country where the app is operating. He said the company has about 40,000 moderators that track harmful content and an algorithm that flags material.
Rep. Earl L. ‘Buddy’ Carter (R-GA) asked Chew whether TikTok’s equivalent in China hosts ‘deadly challenge’ videos aimed at children like the U.S. version.
Concerns about the platform increased when ByteDance admitted in December that it fired four employees who accessed data on two journalists, and people connected to them, last summer while attempting to uncover the source of a leaked report about the company.
At the crux of much of the fears over TikTok is a 2017 Chinese law that requires local firms to hand over personal data to the state if it is relevant to national security.
There´s no evidence that TikTok has turned over such data, but fears abound due to the vast amount of user data it collects.
Beijing itself on Friday denied it would ask Chinese firms to hand over data gathered overseas and claimed it ‘attaches great importance to protecting data privacy’.
China ‘has never and will not require companies or individuals to collect or provide data located in a foreign country’, foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a regular briefing.
‘The US government has so far not provided any evidence that TikTok poses a threat to its national security,’ Mao added.
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