Australia

Intelligence agencies made the right call in not banning TikTok

Fighting cybercrime is a crucial area for national security policy but the challenge will be balancing the risks against the costs of protecting our networks.

The risks which were detailed in a new federal cyber security strategy released on Thursday range from malignant attacks by foreign powers on infrastructure, such as power stations and airports, to data theft and so-called “ransomware” which inserts destructive viruses on networks.

Terrorists and organised crime groups, such as paedophile rings, can also use encrypted software or the so-called dark web to operate worldwide without detection.

The Federal government’s strategy has committed $1.6 billion over the next four years, about 10 times more than previously, to help businesses, individuals and government departments fight these threats. That will pay for more cyber security experts, public awareness campaigns, better software design and the like.

Yet on the other side of the ledger the global software industry and privacy advocates are concerned that in the name of protecting Australia, the government could overstep.

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Big Tech has complained about a 2018 law which gives federal investigators the power to hack into encrypted messages on networks run by official service providers. They argue that if federal investigators are allowed to hack in, then bad guys could exploit the same holes in the system. Journalists fear that the law will compromise confidential communications with their sources.

The new strategy could annoy both groups even more because it promises to give officials the legal power to peer into technologies known as the dark web, which fall outside the current laws. The Herald in general accepts the need for new powers to deal with cyber crime, but they must be subject to rigid external scrutiny, just like any police search warrant.

While the Federal government is stressing the importance of cyber security, it has surprised some by a separate decision announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison earlier this week not to ban TikTok, a Chinese-owned social media app which has become hugely popular around the world.

It appears to contrast with the tough stance Australia took in its world-leading decision to ban the use of equipment made by Chinese firm Huawei in our national 5G communications network.

The decision could also lead to conflict with the US, where President Donald Trump says he will ban TikTok and other Chinese social media apps.

Yet it is welcome that Australia is making its own decisions based on its own intelligence, not blindly following the anti-China hysteria emanating from the US presidential election campaign.

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In fact, the risks posed by TikTok and Huawei are very different.

Using Huawei hardware in our 5G network could have given Chinese spies access to some of our most critical infrastructure such as the “internet of things” where machines are operated by networked artificial intelligence. In theory, it could allow hackers to short out power stations or shut down the air traffic network.

TikTok, on the other hand, is about teenagers sharing goofy 15-second videos. Certainly they risk being snooped on and theoretically China could try to moderate the content on the app for political purposes. But these are threats which sensible individuals can manage as they do with other social media. They can choose not to share personal information and balance TikTok with information from other sources.

Morrison’s decision was based on advice from Australian security agencies that TikTok did not present a serious national security risk – the same security agencies which recommended barring Huawei from next-generation networks. The decisions show Australia’s intelligence assessments and policy responses working as they should – unlike in the US where the intelligence community has been politicised under Donald Trump.

The Herald editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.

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