TikTok, a video-sharing app that has been downloaded two billion times worldwide, has come under fire over privacy concerns that it may share data with the Chinese government.
The company has consistently denied these allegations — but not everyone is convinced.
READ MORE: U.S. probing TikTok over allegations app violated children’s privacy, sources say
David Skillicorn, a professor in the School of Computing at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said TikTok has had security problems since it launched, and although the company has been trying to fix it, the app is still “poorly implemented from a security perspective.”
“So anything TikTok knows about, assume China knows about as well,” he said.
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States is “certainly looking at” banning TikTok, suggesting it shared information with the Chinese government.
Last month, India banned TikTok along with 58 other Chinese apps after a border clash with China. India cited privacy concerns saying the app poses a threat to the nation’s sovereignty and security.
Is Canada next on the list to ban the app?
Global News reached out to the Trudeau government and asked if Canada was going to follow suit.
“We live in a highly connected world and now more than ever, information technology plays an incredibly important role in all of our lives,” a spokesperson from the office of the Minister of Public Safety said in an email.
“Our government continues to work in close collaboration with agencies and leaders in the technology sector to ensure Canadians and our systems are protected. Canadians can be confident in the work performed by our security agencies, who will not hesitate to act in order to keep our country safe.”
Ritesh Kotak, an independent tech and cybersecurity expert said using TikTok, like with any other app, comes with automatic privacy concerns.
“With any social media in general you may be giving up your privacy. There is a concern here, because it is a global app, it’s very popular,” Kotak said. “What does this mean for Canadian citizens? Will your data be in the hands of the Chinese government?”
Privacy expert and former Ontario Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian said the answer to this is a “big question mark.”
“TikTok has tried to distance itself from China. But we have no idea what China does and where its tentacles go into,” she said.
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Why is TikTok seen as a national security threat?
TikTok , owned by internet giant Bytedance, has gained popularity among a younger demographic for its easy ability to upload, edit and share short videos. The app uses snappy 15-second clips that are fueled by an algorithm based on the content a user engages with.
But there have been allegations the company may be censoring politically sensitive content as well as handing over user data to the Chinese government.
Another security concern, he said, is that because TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, it’s subject to China’s rules that say ‘our security people can at any moment ask you to do anything,’ meaning give up private information.
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This is exactly what U.S. lawmakers are worried about.
In March, Republican Senator Josh Hawley introduced legislation banning federal employees from using the social media app.
“TikTok is scooping up immense amounts of data and they are sharing it with Beijing; they are required to,” Hawley said. “For federal employees, it really is a no-brainer. It’s a major security risk … do we really want Beijing having geo-location data of all federal employees? Do we really want them having their keystrokes?”
In November, the U.S. government opened a national security review of the app’s $1-billion acquisition of U.S. social media app Musical.ly. And a month later, the U.S. Navy banned TikTok from government-issued mobile devices, saying it represented a “cybersecurity threat.”
There is a current class-action lawsuit in California that accused the company of taking user content, like phone numbers and emails, without consent, and then sending the information to servers in China.
But TikTok has sought to distance itself from the Chinese government while striving for global appeal. It recently hired former Walt Disney executive Kevin Mayer to be its CEO. The app has also never been available in China.
READ MORE: Pompeo says U.S. mulling ban on TikTok, other Chinese social media apps
On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported the company is considering a corporate shakeup and creating headquarters outside of China.”
The company has said all its data is stored in servers in the U.S. and insisted it would not remove content even if asked to do so by the Chinese government.
In a statement, a TikTok spokesperson told Global News the company has no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app for its users.
“We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked,” the company said.
Should Canada ban the app?
Although there are privacy concerns, Kotak argued simply “banning” the app won’t solve digital privacy issues.
“TikTok is not the only Chinese app people are using in Canada, there are other international apps individuals are using,” he said. “Today it’s TikTok but tomorrow it will be something else. What it comes down to, as with any app, is you have to practice proper cyber hygiene.”
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Cavoukian agreed, saying lots of apps have privacy issues, but because TikTok is associated with China, it is seen as vulnerable.
She said it’s unlikely Canada will ban the app.
“Trudeau is still trying to preserve a relationship with China, so I don’t think he’s going to want to do anything that may be perceived to be anti-China,” Cavoukian said.
What can TikTok users do?
Skillicorn said if Canadians aren’t going to delete the app, then to make sure they don’t have any sensitive information on their phone, such as banking passwords.
Kotak’s advice is to make sure users do their homework.
“If you are not paying for the product you are the product. As a consumer, you have to be responsible for what you are putting on your device. Try and find if the app may be sharing your information with a third party, not within Canada, but overseas where servers may be more relaxed,” he said.
— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press