There has now been a clean sweep of TikTok from the government devices of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing coalition, as Australia became the last of the group to send the app packing. The Australia TikTok ban does not extend as far as those of some other countries, however, allowing government employees to continue to use the app on their personal devices.
In addition to these countries, a handful of similar TikTok bans are already in place throughout Europe, and it has been banned entirely from India since border tensions flared up with China in mid-2020. The US is considering a similar blanket prohibition of the popular video-sharing app, instructing parent company ByteDance to find a buyer in the country or face the prospect of removal from the major app stores.
Australia TikTok ban based on national security concerns
The Australia TikTok ban follows the same concerns that have prompted actions by its allies; fears that sensitive personal or classified information will find its way from government devices to ByteDance servers in China, where it will then be subject to surreptitious access by the ruling party under its broad intelligence laws (which require cooperation from private companies with any request and forbid the use of encryption that the government does not have a means to circumvent).
Australia’s TikTok ban will go into effect “as soon as is practicable” according to Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, with organizations required to apply for exemptions on a case-by-case basis. The ban follows a more general review of foreign interference risks via social media platforms, with the Home Affairs Department ultimately signing off on the removal from government devices but leaving the door for other apps based in foreign countries to potentially face a similar fate.
The Victorian and ACT governments have previously stated that they would follow the Commonwealth’s lead on a TikTok ban, and spokespersons for both have said that they will work with the national government on implementing similar restrictions for territory government devices. The New South Wales government has said that it intends to continue discussions with the Commonwealth about the terms of the ban.
For its part TikTok maintains its stance that it is not sharing foreign data with the Chinese government, but a series of leaks that have emerged since 2022 have sown extreme doubt about the degree to which ByteDance can be trusted. The leaks indicate that the company has not kept promises to limit the amount of personal data that engineers in China have access to, and several employees were recently found to be monitoring US-based journalists that were writing articles critical of the app and seeking whistleblower information.
Bans on government devices increasingly common outside of China
TikTok bans are not just coming from governments, but from individual agencies. Many US agencies, particularly those involved with the military, had already banned the app from government devices prior to the White House order. State governments have also been very active in this way, with over half having issued similar bans. In Europe, the European Parliament has ordered its staff to stop using the device, and NATO recently gave its own staffers similar instructions.
Bans from government devices outside of China are almost a foregone conclusion at this point, with it just being a question of how soon localities opt to implement them. Those are founded on national security concerns. The discussion of blanket bans for a nation’s population is an entirely different story. The primary justification there is the possibility of China using TikTok as a propaganda platform, something of a harder case to make, and any politician that signs on to such a ban faces immediate backlash from constituents that love the app. Some have jumped into that fray, however, and they point to the differences in content that trends on China’s Douyin (primarily educational and business information with a dose of national patriotism) versus the more shallow (and sometimes socially divisive) “influencer” content that tends to trend on TikTok.
Another supporting point in the push for a national TikTok ban is that the app is more hungry for personal data than most, particularly on Android phones. A recent study by cybersecurity consultant Internet 2.0 found that the app deploys fingerprinting techniques to track individual devices even if privacy settings are enabled, in addition to requesting a larger amount of permissions than any other social media app.
As is the case in the other Five Eyes countries, a large amount of Australia’s population is using TikTok (something that a ban from government devices will barely make a dent in). The app was recently estimated to have a little over eight million adult users, but it is most popular with those under the age of 18. That could put about half (or more) of the total 26 million residents of the country on the app at least occasionally.