Canada banning video app TikTok on government-issued mobile devices
TikTok has long been embroiled in privacy concerns because the Chinese government has a stake in its owner
By Nojoud Al Mallees in Ottawa
The federal government is banning TikTok from government-issued mobile devices days after federal and provincial privacy commissioners began investigating the social media platform.
A statement from Treasury Board President Mona Fortier said the application will be removed from mobile devices on Tuesday.
The decision follows a review by the chief information officer of Canada, who determined that TikTok “presents an unacceptable level of risk to privacy and security.”
“While the risks of using this application are clear, we have no evidence at this point that government information has been compromised,” Fortier said in the statement, adding the ban is a precautionary measure that brings Canada’s policy in line with international partners.
Both the U.S. and the European Union have recently banned government staff from using TikTok on work-issued devices.
While the ban doesn’t go as far as outlawing the app entirely in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it might encourage people and businesses to reflect on the security of their own data.
“I’m always a fan of giving Canadians the information for them to make the right decisions for them,” Trudeau said.
A spokesperson for TikTok said the social media company is always open to meeting government officials to discuss how it protects Canadians’ privacy.
“But singling out TikTok in this way does nothing to achieve that shared goal. All it does is prevent officials from reaching the public on a platform loved by millions of Canadians,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Errol Mendes, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said the ban is “long overdue.”
Mendes said it was also likely an inevitable decision, given the privacy concerns and the fact that other countries had already enacted similar bans.
The privacy concerns stem from the fact that the Chinese government has a stake in TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, and laws allow the country to access user data.
Last week, the federal privacy watchdog and its counterparts in B.C., Alberta and Quebec announced an investigation to delve into whether it complies with Canadian privacy legislation.
The ban also comes at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions with China.
Earlier this month, the U.S. shot down a Chinese high-altitude balloon that had also flown through Canadian airspace, saying it was a suspected spy device. China’s government has said it was a weather balloon that went off course.
In addition, recent media reports have raised concerns about potential Chinese interference in the last two Canadian federal elections, prompting opposition parties to call for a public inquiry.
Sara Grimes, director of the Knowledge Media Design Institute at the University of Toronto, said all of that likely played a role in the timing of the ban.
“But it’s important not to discount the fact that there’s been increased awareness recently about social media apps in general playing fast and loose with our data,” Grimes said in an email.
Although Canada has been historically hesitant to regulate the tech industry, Grimes said she’s feeling optimistic about “Canada’s shifting approach to digital technology.”
She also said TikTok is not the only app that raises privacy concerns, noting other social media platforms also “collect mountains of data.”
“The industry as a whole needs closer scrutiny,” she said.
But even as governments globally pay more attention to TikTok and privacy regulation, the app continues to be widely used, especially among younger people.
A report by the Social Media Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University published in September found that while one in four Canadians are on TikTok overall, 75 per cent of those between the ages of 18 and 24 have an account.
Mendes the app’smassive popularity among youth means the privacy concerns extend beyond geopolitics.
He said it might be incumbent on governments to create educational campaigns for schools and universities “as to the dangers that TikTok is presenting to all the youth of Canada.”
Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Michael Dwyer
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2023.