Is TikTok bad? That is why many Western countries are taking a closer look

Western countries are taking a critical look at TikTok's reach and the risks the Chinese platform could pose.  (Dado Ruvic/Reuters - photo credit)

Western countries are taking a critical look at TikTok’s reach and the risks the Chinese platform could pose. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters – photo credit)

TikTok is under increased scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic as Western countries eye the reach of the Chinese-owned platform and the risks it poses.

Canada’s federal privacy regulator and three provincial counterparts launched a joint investigation this week to examine whether the social media platform is meeting privacy law expectations and how it collects and uses data. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said separately that the country’s electronic spy agency is on the lookout for TikTok threats.

Two key European Union political institutions this week also banned the video-sharing app from employees’ phones over cybersecurity concerns.

Closer to home, a growing list of US states have reportedly banned the app from government phones. Restrictions also apply to US federal government employees, with some exceptions.

This increased focus on all that TikTok offers amid deteriorating China-West relations is one backdrop experts say should not be ignored.

“There has to be some recognition of the political climate in the context in which we are discussing this [TikTok issue] now,” Vass Bednar, executive director of the Masters of Public Policy in Digital Society program at McMaster University in Hamilton, told The Canadian Press.

“And I think asking why now is an awkward question because an investigation like this could happen at any time and probably should happen to other companies on social media as well.”

Canadian Concerns

The forthcoming Canadian investigation involves the federal privacy commissioner and provincial counterparts in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec – although the issues are of national interest.

“All Canadian provincial and territorial privacy commissioners have been informed of the joint investigation,” said Vito Pilieci, a senior communications adviser for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, via email.

CLOCK | How worried should you be about TikTok?

Pilieci said the federal guardian oversees compliance with Canada’s private sector privacy law. But the three provinces have their own laws that can also be applied, so their regulators are involved.

After the investigation was announced, a TikTok spokesperson said, “We welcome the opportunity to work with federal and provincial privacy regulators to clarify how we protect the privacy of Canadians.”

TikTok has been one of the fastest growing social media platforms in the country in recent years.

About 26 percent of adults in Canada are on TikTok, according to a census-balanced online poll conducted last spring. That was an increase from 15 percent two years ago.

According to the same 2022 survey, 76 percent of Canadian adults ages 18 to 24 had TikTok accounts.

The Canadian regulators’ investigation will focus in part on how the platform works Policies affect the youngest users — specifically, whether TikTok “received valid and meaningful consent from those users for the collection, use, and disclosure of their personal information.”

Will users care?

McMaster University’s Bednar believes the research is unlikely to force Canadians to reconsider their use of TikTok.

Martin Meissner/The Associated Press

Martin Meissner/The Associated Press

The app is designed to get users’ attention, and one that TikTok may know people aren’t likely to leave the platform, “which maybe constitutes the threat.” [of an investigation] emptier,” Bednar said.

But Sara Grimes, director of the Knowledge Media Design Institute at the University of Toronto, said discovering data breaches or other issues could change how consumers think.

“If the investigation confirms that TikTok violates our privacy rights and/or the privacy rights of teenagers and children, I think it will definitely affect user habits,” she told The Canadian Press in an email.

“Contrary to popular belief, young people care a lot about their privacy and how their data is used. And parents are also very concerned about their children’s data.”

But why Tiktok?

Concerns about TikTok aren’t new, and the platform is similar to others in many ways. Anatoliy Gruzd, co-director of the Social Media Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University, said the current ones appear to be somewhat rooted in geopolitical tensions.

Chris Tanouye/Getty Images

Chris Tanouye/Getty Images

“Like other platforms, TikTok collects user data,” Gruzd said, noting that bad actors could hack or harass a particular account like they could elsewhere on social media.

But he said the “extra kind of attention” focused on TikTok appears to be linked to its ownership of ByteDance, a Chinese-owned company, and related concerns that its data could be exposed to Beijing.

Lynette Ong, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, is skeptical that concerns about the data TikTok stores are significant compared to other apps — like WeChat or Alipay — that may contain related financial and personal data that one need regulatory attention.

“This is not to say that Chinese companies are unable to spy or threaten our national security,” she added.

But cybersecurity experts like Brian Haugli, CEO of US firm SideChannel, see dangers in the information TikTok users may unknowingly share after they download an app that “sees a person’s location, the networks they’re accessing.” and save” incoming messages.

“If you really look into all the permissions it contains, I don’t think most users are aware or willing to hand it over to a company that’s located in China and based in China.” ‘ Hagli told CBC The National In December.

While such concerns have led to some TikTok device bans from the EU and US governments, it’s not immediately clear if such a move will be taken here.

When asked if Canada would follow suit, Treasury Board spokesman Martin Potvin told The Canadian Press via email that Ottawa was “assessing the situation, including the legislative announcement by our US allies and recently the European Commission, and determine the next steps, if necessary”.


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