After a federal investigation into the social media giant TikTok, Canada announced it would ban the short-form video app on government-issued mobile devices, a move that cybersecurity experts say highlights pre-existing concerns for the safety of Canadians’ personal data.
While the federal government didn’t say it will be adding further restrictions on the app for the general public, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “this may be a first step, it may be the only step we need to take, but every step of the way we’re going to be making sure that we’re keeping Canadians safe.”
Cybersecurity expert Terry Cutler told CTV News Channel that Canadians can go about using the app at their own risk of their personal data being tracked, and while removing the app completely off their phones can be an option, there are concerns of its ties to other apps that TikTok can plug into to access users’ personal data.
“There’s so many ways that you can still be tracked online even without the TikTok app. The only other concern is that there’s a lot of apps that plug into TikTok and vice versa, so they’re still able to get information on you from other sources,” Cutler said Tuesday.
WHY HAS THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT BANNED TIKTOK?
Following the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s probe of the app, Mona Fortier, President of the Treasury Board. said on Monday the decision was a cautionary move.
“The decision to remove and block TikTok from government mobile devices is being taken as a precaution, particularly given concerns about the legal regime that governs the information collected from mobile devices, and is in line with the approach of our international partners,” she said in a statement.
Fortier also said while there is no evidence to indicate any government data has been compromised, there are still risks involved for users of the app and Canadians should be aware of this before committing to its use.
Other provinces are now looking into banning the app from their government like Quebec, who quickly followed suit banning the app on government devices on Tuesday.
In response, TikTok questioned why the federal government set the ban without providing specific concerns or contacting the social media company first, according to a company spokesperson.
“We are always available to meet with our government officials to discuss how we protect the privacy and security of Canadians, 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.
SHOULD I DELETE TIKTOK?
Concerns of this data sharing, particularly with its Chinese parent company Bytedance, has been a main concern amid Canadian-Chinese tensions.
Rob Falzon, head of engineering at cybersecurity company Check Point, says TikTok has had vulnerabilities in the past, as research teams at Check Point found hackers could release private information by connecting a user’s profile to phone numbers associated with the account, reveal personal information or upload unauthorized videos.
“I think there’s a larger issue at play here that is not addressed by simply banning Tiktok,” Falzon told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Tuesday. “And that is the issue of data protection and privacy laws in Canada in general.”
Falzon says while he supports the ban on government-issued devices, there still needs to be more done to ensure Canadian’s safety online, and not just with TikTok.
“We have to start asking ourselves if there should the people who create these apps hold that responsibility or should there be a sort of threshold that the government should implement this from a rules perspective to say, ‘you need to meet these basic rules to be allowed to do business in Canada’?” he said.
Sharon Polsky, President of the Privacy and Access Council of Canada, says Canadian users should be more conscious about their online activity but it can be difficult to see it that way since so much of their daily activities have become so dependent on the use of technology, whether that’s connecting with friends or shopping online.
“This is good to raise awareness, there are issues about websites, whether it’s social media or retailers or just about any website, including medical and mental health websites that collect personal information, very, very sensitive personal information,” she told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Tuesday.
Whether Canadians should continue to use the app should be completely up to them, she said, but that decision should include the education and tools to understand how their data is being used and how they can protect themselves.
HOW CAN I PROTECT MYSELF?
Falzon says Canadians need to start asking more questions about whether or not the devices they use every day require personal details in order to function.
“If it’s a device like a smart TV or smart coffee maker, do you need a smart coffee maker? Do you need the app that goes with the smart coffee maker?” he said. “Did your coffeemaker just ask you what your birthday was? Why? Why am I putting that information in there?”
Similar to how parents are recommended to keep watch of their children’s online activity, Falzon says everyone should be taking care of themselves in the same way to determine how much personal information they want to expose on apps and devices.
“There are legitimate reliable sources of information that are not scams that people can educate themselves to know how to look at the features in their phone, or their desktop or their tablet and lock it down. How not to just accept whatever is presented to them, to question it,” she said.