The TikTok app logo (file image)
TikTok has denied it's breached privacy laws as the information commissioner begins investigations. Image by Morgan Hancock/AAP PHOTOS
  • politics

TikTok privacy breach allegations under spotlight

Dominic Giannini December 28, 2023

TikTok is under the spotlight in Australia amid allegations of privacy breaches and personal data being siphoned.

The Australian Information Commissioner is inquiring into the social media giant’s handling of personal data as well as claims it has been scraping data without consent from people who don’t even have its app.

Preliminary inquiries will determine whether a full investigation should be launched.

“Strong privacy protections are critical to addressing the privacy risks faced by Australians online,” the commissioner said in a statement on Thursday, confirming inquiries were being made.

The allegations relate to the use of a tracking tool, known as a pixel, to harvest data including internet history and personal information and scrape information off people who don’t have the social media app installed.

TikTok has denied breaching privacy laws, saying pixels are used industry-wide and are voluntary for advertising clients to use.

It branded the accusations as trying to “mislead or scare companies without regard to current law or the information available”.

“Pixel usage, which is voluntary for our advertising clients to adopt, is an industry-wide tool used to improve the effectiveness of advertising services,” TikTok said in a statement.

“Our use of this tool is compliant with all current Australian privacy laws and regulations and we dismiss any suggestion otherwise. 

“We also rely on our advertising clients to only share data with us through the Pixel, if they have in turn provided their customers with the necessary information and obtained the necessary permissions.”

Australia user data is encrypted and stored in “world-class data centres” in the US and Singapore, it added.

The company needed to fully co-operate with the commissioner, federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said. 

Mark Dreyfus.
 Attorney-General and Acting Foreign Minister Mark Dreyfus says TikTok should “co-operate”. Image by James Ross/AAP PHOTOS 

“My advice for TikTok would be to co-operate with the investigator in this matter,” he told reporters in Melbourne on Thursday.

Amid concerns about data harvesting by TikTok’s parent company ByteDance and its ties to the Chinese Communist Party, Australia has banned the app from government devices.

Opposition home affairs spokesman James Paterson welcomed inquiries into the “mass privacy breach”.

“TikTok’s practices of harvesting the private contact information, browsing history and shopping habits of Australian internet users apparently without consent is deeply concerning and highly likely to be unlawful,” he said.

“Especially troubling is that the data of non-TikTok users is allegedly being collected as part of this scheme.”

Such conduct was unacceptable for any company but “particularly alarming given TikTok is beholden to the Chinese Communist Party and is required under China’s intelligence laws to share information”, he added.

Senator Paterson also called on the government to take further legislative action to protect Australians’ data.

Legislation to reform the Privacy Act is expected in 2024. 

Extensive reforms were needed to ensure protection against “the technological changes that we are all now having to confront”, Mr Dreyfus said.