TikTok data gathering behind federal ban: cyber agency

Andrew Brown |

Australian Signals Directorate acting director-general Abigail Bradshaw explained a TikTok ban.
Australian Signals Directorate acting director-general Abigail Bradshaw explained a TikTok ban.

The country’s peak cyber security agency says TikTok’s ability to gather large amounts of user information was in part the reason for the app’s ban from government devices.

Officials from the Australian Signals Directorate on Wednesday told a parliamentary inquiry into foreign interference through social media the app could form a picture of information about those with profiles on the platform.

The government moved to ban TikTok from government devices earlier this year, following the lead of other western nations.

Australian Signals Directorate acting director-general Abigail Bradshaw said the information that could be gathered by TikTok included data such as phone numbers, contacts, IP addresses and SIM card numbers.

“Together, obviously, in aggregated form that creates quite a unique fingerprint in terms of the device,” she said.

“That analysis of the risks associated with the type of data which can be generated … informed the architecture of the advisory (for the TikTok ban).”

Officials for TikTok, who appeared before the committee on Tuesday, said security for users was its priority.

Department of Home Affairs official Peter Anstee, who also appeared in front of the committee, said while TikTok had been banned from government devices, data collection was common among social media platforms.

“There are a lot of applications that can collect a huge amount of data,” he said.

“I don’t think that risk is unique to any particular app.”

Mr Anstee also revealed a review into privacy practices of social media platforms, which was presented to the government earlier this year, was unlikely to be released publicly.

“Given the classification of the review, I think it’s unlikely that it will be made public,” he told the hearing.

The review is still being considered by the government.

Meanwhile, the country’s electoral commissioner has expressed concern for the safety of officials conducting elections following misinformation being spread online.

Australian Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers told the committee there was a growing number of incidents where officials were being filmed at polling places and their names posted online.

Mr Rogers said the recent NSW election was the first time he had seen a widespread campaign of filming electoral staff.

While the AEC did not run the NSW election, which was run by the NSW Electoral Commission, Mr Rogers said it represented a concerning trend for future polls.

“There’s also a personal safety element for the staff involved in that process, which disturbs us,” he told the committee.

“The big picture strategic impact is undermining citizens’ faith in the integrity of the electoral process, and from my perspective, I think that is critically important.”

Mr Rogers said conspiracy theories peddled online about the electoral process were damaging to the voting system.

“If citizens start to promote conspiracy theories about a faulty electoral system or somehow that the electoral system is biased, or whatever it might be, that will undermine confidence in electoral results,” he said.

The committee is set to hand down its final report by the end of the month.