A local ban on Chinese social media app TikTok is unlikely soon but can’t be ruled out as China’s actions alarm some other countries, a security expert says.
Beijing-based private company ByteDance owns video-sharing app TikTok, which insisted it did not and would not share Kiwi users’ data with any foreign government.
But TikTok was now drawn into a debate which security analyst Dr Paul G Buchanan resulted from growing concerns globally about Chinese tech firms’ possible links to the Chinese Communist Party.
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‘It’s a state capitalist system. They’re not independent corporations in the Western sense of the word,” Buchanan said.
“There is a law that requires all Chinese firms...to work in the interest of the Chinese state,” the Auckland-based analyst added.
Buchanan did not believe a New Zealand TikTok ban was imminent, as doing so risked sparking a Chinese backlash.
“We have to walk a fine line between the security concerns of our Western partners and others, and our trade dependency on China.”
He said New Zealand’s agricultural exports to China, its biggest trade partner, were often readily obtainable elsewhere, unlike the billions of dollars in strategically-important minerals Australia exported.
But Buchanan said long-term inertia over technologies considered high-risk could jeopardise New Zealand’s relationship with its Five Eyes security partners – the US, Britain, Canada and Australia.
The New Zealand Government's apparent reluctance to forcefully condemn Chinese security crackdowns in Hong Kong drew criticism from some quarters.
TikTok told Stuff it did not share New Zealand user information with any foreign regime, including China's.
“The TikTok app does not operate in China and has not received any requests from the Chinese government for user information or to remove content,” a TikTok spokeswoman said.
“We are a privately-owned company, and TikTok is focused on enabling people to make and share creative and fun videos.”
She said TikTok was investing in safety improvements.
“Contrary to some claims, we are not aligned with any Government, political party or ideology.”
TikTok said it received requests from 26 non-Chinese governments late last year to remove content.
“The unsolvable problem for TikTok is that allegations of cyber risk and data privacy – which can be defended – have given way to the intangible accusation of Chinese influence and control,” Forbes magazine reported on Saturday.
A spokesman for Communications Minister Kris Faafoi said no current discussions about banning TikTok were underway.
He said the Government's Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) urged app users generally to check privacy settings, and be cautious sharing personal information.
Melissa Lee, National's Communications and Digital Media spokeswoman, said Parliamentary Services advised MPs not to use TikTok.
Lee said she had insufficient evidence to take a view on banning TikTok specifically.
She said Kiwis should be vigilant about personal information when downloading any apps.
“It’s an ongoing issue.”
Lee said technology often advanced faster than privacy or data-sharing laws.
This meant regulators often played catch-up after events such as the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Some Kiwi civil servants were already banned from using TikTok and the US-owned Houseparty app on work phones due to security concerns.
PwC national cyber leader Adrian van Hest said people who weren’t paying for an app with a fee would probably pay with personal information.
“The reality is, the terms and conditions of most social media platforms is such that they state what information they are taking, but most people do not read that, and they accept it,” he said.
Van Hest said once an app had consent, it could often access a person's contacts and location.