5 September 2022
SENATOR HENDERSON: I’m here with Senator Paterson. Thank you so much for being here. Today the opposition raises very serious concerns about online privacy. We’ve revealed today that now Australian WeChat users are being targeted and effectively coerced into transferring their data, all of their personal information, to servers based in China. We call on the Albanese government to take online privacy seriously.
The Coalition’s Online Privacy Bill is a very important first step in enhancing online privacy, in ensuring there is parental consent for users under the age of 16, and ensuring that there is full consent for the use of personal information and providing for very serious penalties, fines of up to $10 million where there is a persistent and systemic failure to ensure Australians’ online privacy.
We call on the Albanese government, including the Communications Minister Michelle Rowland, to take these issues seriously. James will speak about the review that has been announced by the Home Affairs Minister. But we are not seeing enough action quickly enough and this is a very serious issue. And we demand quick action to do what we expect, and that is to protect the online privacy of Australians.
SENATOR PATERSON: Sarah, thanks very much. And the information that Sarah has revealed today about what is happening to WeChat users in Australia adds to the significant body of concern about the operations of that app and other apps which are headquartered in authoritarian countries like China, which includes TikTok, Didi and many others. And while I very much welcome the announcement by the Minister for Home Affairs and Cyber Security, Clare O’Neil, on Sunday that the government now recognises that this is a unique challenge and that it does need to be met with regulation.
That report will not be handed back to the government until early next year. And in the meantime, the 7 million users of TikTok, the almost 1 million users of WeChat and the many users of Didi and other apps are exposed and are not protected. And there are things the government could do right now to protect them. As Sarah pointed out, the Coalition’s privacy bill is there and ready to go. It could be picked up by the government at any time.
I’m also concerned that the Minister has pre-emptively ruled out banning any of these apps if the Department of Home Affairs recommends it. It may be possible to mitigate the serious cyber security issues with these apps simply by regulating them. But it may also be necessary to ban them in some instances, and it is a mistake for the Minister to rule that out before she’s even seen the advice from her own department.
So I urge the Government to reconsider, to put all options back on the table, and to take these cybersecurity, privacy and safety issues very seriously.
SENATOR HENDERSON: Any questions at all?
QUESTION: I’d like to ask about TikTok
SENATOR HENDERSON: Well, one of the reasons this online privacy bill is so important is because it provides particular protections for children, and we know the vast majority of users of TikTok are teens or young adults, and they need protection. The notion that there is data harvesting, that there is the ability for TikTok to track the movements of children is really alarming. And now that we know that WeChat is targeting Australian users, asking them to move their data to China, effectively coercing them because it places them in a situation where if you don’t consent then you lose much of the functionality of your WeChat account. So, we are particularly concerned about the impact that this is having on Australian children and this is why action from the Albanese government is so urgent.
SENATOR PATERSON: Sarah’s absolutely right. When it comes to TikTok, independent researchers have demonstrated that it collects far more information from its users than is strictly necessary to operate the app. For example, it regularly pings users’ physical location. It seeks to regularly access their full contact book, including the full phone numbers in their address book. It logs other apps that are listed on their device and used on their device. It even examines which WiFi networks the user has logged into. Now these are things which are not necessary for the app to function, and it has also been revealed that the in-app browser within TikTok has the capacity to store every keystroke that a user makes when they use that app. That means that the passwords and credit card information that you enter in could potentially be captured by TikTok and that data could be accessed in China, including by Chinese intelligence agencies because all Chinese companies and individuals are subject to those national intelligence laws. So it is about time that the Albanese government took these issues seriously, stepped up and addressed them and didn’t delay anything further.
QUESTION: It’s a bit like unscrambling an egg, but it’s probably too late to really ban TikTok from Australia now isn’t it?
SENATOR PATERSON: Well, I think all options should be on the table. It would be premature to rule those options out as the Minister has done, because it may be that the advice that comes back from our Home Affairs Department and our intelligence agencies is that there is no way of safely mitigating those risks and the only way to do deal with them is by banning. Now, I don’t want to pre-empt that advice. I think we should wait and see what the advice is. It sends a very strange signal to the department that the Minister is publicly ruling out options before she’s even seen their advice. They should be able to provide that advice without fear or favour.
SENATOR HENDERSON: And I would also just that the Coalition has a very strong record of protecting Australians’ online safety. We introduced the world’s first online e-Safety Commissioner to protect children. Those powers were extended in the Online Safety Act to protect adults from serious cyber abuse and other similar conduct. We are very, very disappointed that Labor essentially said almost nothing about online safety, particularly the Communications Minister, before the election, and she continues to be missing in action. That is not good enough. We expect and demand immediate action on these issues. Thank you very much, everyone.