Premier Daniel Andrews has admonished a “junior bureaucrat” who banned TikTok on state department work phones with “no authority” and says he will not order public servants to delete the Chinese-owned social media app until receiving advice from the federal government.
But Liberal MPs say the Andrews government has been too slow to act and have questioned whether expert advice relating to the popular video-sharing app is being followed.
Premier Daniel Andrews speaking on Tuesday.Credit:Justin McManus
The criticism comes after the cybersecurity team at the state Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action said TikTok “could be used for monitoring and intelligence gathering”.
Staff at the department were told by email in January that the app would be forcibly removed from work devices because of those security risks. However, the ban was reversed after just one day following questions from The Age.
Andrews said on Tuesday the authority to make such an edict was with the secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, the head of the public service, not a “junior bureaucrat”.
“I think you’ll find a relatively junior member of staff decided without any reference to the secretary of that department or any process that they would issue that email. They had no authority to make that change whatsoever,” the premier said.
“The reason that decision never proceeded was that it was very unclear that any kind of authority or process had been gone through in order to provide that advice. Somebody had acted without any authority whatsoever.”
An email chain shows staff from the information security and workplace services teams agreed to ban TikTok, which was active on 69 department devices. The chain was obtained by the Coalition’s spokesman for electoral oversight David Davis under freedom of information laws and provided to The Age.
“No Australian jurisdiction has banned the use of TikTok yet,” a member of the workplace services team wrote on January 3. “But it would seem judicious to remove access to the app on DEECA corporate devices. If the app is being used for business purposes, it is not an appropriate tool, given the security concerns.”
A staff member from the information security team quickly replied with “this is an easy one”.
Other jurisdictions have started banning TikTok on government devices.Credit:Getty
“TikTok is definitely not something I would approve for use within DEECA. I had previous concerns over this application and how much information it retains.”
Department secretary John Bradley intervened a day after the ban took effect, following questions from The Age, in conversations he had with chief information officer Tiffany Wong and deputy secretary of corporate services Graeme Emonson.
TikTok has consistently dismissed fears about its data harvesting as being baseless. The social media platform insists user data is safe and that it does not moderate content based on any governments’ desires.
Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil is expected to ban the short-form video app on federal government devices, once a seven-month-long review of the security risks posed by social media platforms is completed, following similar moves in the United States, United Kingdon and the European Union.
New Zealand this month barred the app from parliamentary devices, and Guardian Australia reported NSW is considering a ban. No other Australian state or territory has moved to block TikTok.
Some federal departments have already acted without a government-wide ban.
Davis questioned why the state environment department’s secretary had overridden internal advice from staff members and whether that was a political decision.
“Why is Daniel Andrews’ Victoria so far out of step with other states and other nations in its open-door TikTok policy?” Davis said in a statement. “We should follow the expert security advice, which the government appears to be thumbing its nose at.”
Andrews said he would wait for the Commonwealth to finalise its review.
“I think the best thing to do is wait and see what the Commonwealth government’s national policy settings are. They’re in charge of national security … and we would wait to see what if anything came out of that process,” the premier said.
“We don’t do things in bits and pieces. If [we’re] gonna do something, it will be done properly. The time to potentially do something is when the national government has finalised its processes.”
Victorian Liberal senator James Paterson said it was concerning to hear that IT staff in the department were overruled following media inquiries.
“The technical risks of TikTok are inarguable,” he said. “Which is why the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, the EU and many other like-minded countries have taken steps to protect themselves by banning the app from government devices.
“Federal and state governments should follow without any further delay.”
DEECA, DPC and TikTok were contacted for comment.
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