If you’ve spent any time online in the last week, or you’ve turned on the TV you will have seen plenty of coverage pertaining to social media app TikTok and the information it gathers about its users and the access it has to your phone and personal data. Let’s unpack a bit of that with a clear mind.

I’ve watched the hours of questioning of the TikTok CEO at the US Congressional hearing. I’ve seen the news reports and TV stories about TikTok. I’m also an avid user of the TikTok platform – so, what’s it all about?

TikTok’s Chinese influence

This is all about China. Depending on who you talk to the concerns will come under the guise of “Security Concerns” or just “Privacy Concerns” or a conversation about “Data access”.

Put simply, TikTok is a company that has it’s origins in China, though it now is headquartered in the USA and Singapore. The company’s CEO is Shou Zi Chew, a Singaporean man who was last week sitting copping a grilling from a bunch of US Congressmen and women over the platform and the US concerns about it.

The concerns stem from the basis that any Chinese company is required to hand over information to the Chinese Government if requested.

TikTok’s defence (simplified) is that it is a US/Singaporean based company and the data of its users is held in the US and Singapore. TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is Chinese, and again the concerns are that given that one reports to another it’s very hard to shake these links back to China.

It should be noted here, that at no point has anyone provided any evidence that the Chinese Government has accessed any user data.

Of course, there are Chinese citizens who live and work in mainland China that work as engineers for ByteDance and TikTok, so the “theory” is that those individuals could most certainly access the data even if it’s held on US or Singaporean data centres. But, that same thing could be said of almost any company. Even Australian companies with an office in China would have staff in China – so how widely are we going to spread these concerns?

For the record, TikTok’s CEO Shou Chew addressed these concerns in Congress by saying “I have seen no evidence that the Chinese government has access to that data. They have never asked us. We have not provided it”

A ban on TikTok for Government workers?

Without even going into the detail of the concerns raised in recent days over the access TikTok has on our phones, I’ve got a very simple answer to the question “Should TikTok be banned on Government phones? – Yes.

But the legislation or order that would make that happen should also include Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and possibly more.

What all these companies have in common is their knowledge of their users. Their names, locations, usage habits, interests and so much more.

So if we’re real about a ban, then we have to be real about how worried we really are about the security of our politicians.

“But Facebook is a US company” – yes, yes it is – but does Facebook have any engineers in China? Is Facebook hack proof? If the data exists on a server somewhere, it’s a risk. Simple as that.

I worry about the data TikTok has about us

Fair call. You should be. And it’s a great conversation we should be having about all the apps that are gathering our information. But let me break down some of the wildly over-hyped concerns i’ve seen of late.

TikTok has my location.

Only if you grant it. TikTok, like almost every other app, will ask for your permission to share your location. Users choose to say yes or no to this.

If you’ve said yes, you can turn it off at any time in your phone’s settings.

For any app where you share location data, you’re sharing a spot on the map, elevation, even direction you’re facing. This is the kind of info your phone outputs when you share location so that apps like mapping or perhaps Uber Eats can pinpoint you on a map. TikTok uses this to feed you more content from your local area, and I know this because I’ve had people in my suburb tell me they’ve seen my content despite having never followed me or engaged with any of my content. Frankly, it makes the app even better.

But it’s your choice as a user. I’ve tested the app with Location turned off – works perfectly fine still.

So, if location is your fear. Turn that off.

Why does TikTok have access to my contacts?

Easy one – you said yes:)

TikTok is aggressive about this feature, quite frankly it annoyingly asks you every few days if you want to share your contacts – there’s a few reasons TikTok wants this. And no, it’s not so the Chinese Government can use them.

Basically, TikTok wants it to be easy for you to share cool videos you see with the people you know.

Likewise, TikTok will also likely use the videos your mates watch as a way to feed your “For You Page” algorithm.

Here’s the thing, dig into the settings, TikTok has really simple user controls – frankly, FAR MORE simple than any other social media app i’ve seen.

Goto Settings, and Privacy, choose Contacts and you can see below you can simply turn off that feature. Importantly, if you previously said “yes” to this, there’s also a button to remove previously synced contacts.

At the same time, if you’re really keen to shut them off, goto your phone’s settings and click on the TikTok app and remove that permission at the device level.

TikTok can read my diary – my calendar? Why?

This one is wild. TikTok doesn’t care what time your next meeting is, or when you’re seeing your dentist.

Again – you can simply turn off calendar access in your device settings and in the TikTok settings.

Why does this setting exist? Well, for creators it’s possible to set a schedule of live events – live streams. And when you schedule one, you can add it to your diary, you know – so you don’t forget its happening?

It’s entirely your choice, and for 99% of users, a permission you don’t need to grant. So just turn it off. Simple.

Can TikTok see other devices on my home network?

This may have been the highlight of my week last week, but let’s be serious about it.

A US Congressman famously asked the TikTok CEO “does TikTok access the home wifi network?” And the CEO politely responded that it needed that access to get on the internet.

What I think might have inspired the question is the “Local Network” setting on iPhones.

You might see this pop up when you install an app like a streaming app which uses AirPlay or Chromecast, for example – ABC iView:

Yeah, let’s have a Parliamentary inquiry into why the ABC is accessing my WiFi! 🙂

TikTok too is a streaming app, perhaps you want to use it on a TV – that’s why that setting exists, but like me you can just turn it off!

Why does TikTok need access to my Camera and Microphone?

Um. Ok. Let me get into this one.

If you’re just a swipe and view user, then no, it doesn’t.

But to make a TikTok using the TikTok app, you do need the app to have permission to use your camera and microphone.

To Avoid this, if your tin-foil hat is comfy, just film your TikTok videos in the normal camera app, edit them in something like Adobe Premiere Rush (don’t use CapCut that’s Chinese too!), and upload from TikTok.

If you do that, you WILL need to give TikTok access to your Photo Library – why? Because that’s where the video you made is stored:)

Is TikTok reading my facial expressions or pupil dilations?

Bloody hell, this is where it gets out of control. This one relates to the mention of “face and body features and attributes” within the TikTok privacy statement.

But let’s read it in full:

We may collect information about the images and audio that are a part of your User Content, such as identifying the objects and scenery that appear, the existence and location within an image of face and body features and attributes, the nature of the audio, and the text of the words spoken in your User Content.

That’s so you can add silly augmented reality sunglasses to your face, or in the case of audio so you can generate captions.

Again, if you don’t make videos on TikTok, none of this matters.

The Privacy Terms of TikTok say they will share my info with Law Enforcement!

I’ve seen some reports that point to the TikTok privacy statement reference that the company may share your details with Law Enforcement.

Well, yes, that’s how police fight crimes folks.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter all the social media companies do this.

If they receive a legitimate request from law enforcement for information, they will hand over what they can.

This might relate to the imminent danger of an individual, or perhaps the investigation of a crime.

Like those other companies, TikTok also has a comprehensive transparency report that actually shows us what they’ve shared – well, how much anyway.

In Australia, it looks like this:

Law enforcement requests for user information

Oh yeah – what about the CHINESE GOVERNMENT? Well, how about the Australian Government and their requests? Here’s the data about the number of times our Government asked TikTok to remove or restrict content:

Government requests to remove or restrict content or accounts

TikTok is a danger to our children

Ignore all the stuff about Children from the US Congressional hearing. It’s wild over there. Kids as young as 8 can be on TikTok in the USA.

In Australia, and most other areas of the world, that age is 13.

So why isn’t TikTok removing content harmful to kids (and anyone else).

Fact is, they do.

In just one quarter at the end of last year here’s how that looked:

That’s almost 4,000 videos a day removed by TikTok. Many of them before anyone even complained about it, and most of them before anyone even saw the video.

Kids are now pushed a time limit notification – something no other platform does, and yep, they can just ignore it:)

But, TikTok has a Family pairing feature which allows parents to set strict enforceable limits on their kids use of TikTok. Any politician who is claiming TikTok is bad for kids doesn’t realise that Parents are the ones responsible for what apps their kids have access to, and how long they use them for.

Should TikTok be banned in Australia?

No, and it won’t happen.

Caveat : If someone can provide evidence that the Chinese Government does have all our data and is using it – I’ll be the first one off the app.

But, it would be political suicide for any Government to ban an app that is firstly so popular, and secondly allows freedom of expression. That’s why it won’t be banned. Simple.