Will TikTok vanish on campus? Universities debate its future as app-maker cries foul

Click to play video: 'B.C. university recommends students remove TikTok from phones'
B.C. university recommends students remove TikTok from phones
WATCH: The University of British Columbia is recommending students uninstall TikTok from their phones. In an statement, the university says the popular app has raised concerns over security and privacy due to its data collection practices – Apr 4, 2023

Some Canadian universities are joining the federal government in restricting the use of TikTok, a move the app-maker calls “ill-conceived.”

The University of British Columbia (UBC), Dalhousie University, McGill University and Memorial University of Newfoundland have either implemented or are planning to enact policies or recommendations on the use of the popular social media app.

Canada has joined a growing number of countries in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region that have banned TikTok from government devices as privacy and cybersecurity concerns increase. That comes as Ottawa has also been under pressure to respond to allegations of Chinese interference in Canadian politics and society following reporting from Global News and The Globe and Mail over the last six months.

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U.S. officials have said TikTok is a national security risk, with the FBI and Federal Communications Commission warning that Chinese developer ByteDance could share user data with China’s authoritarian government, which requires private companies to co-operate with Beijing if asked.

“It’s regrettable to see the consequences of ill-conceived policies banning TikTok on government-issued devices –policies that do nothing to advance data privacy and security– trickling down through universities to fearmonger student bodies,” a TikTok spokesperson told Global News in an email.

“These arbitrary recommendations ultimately hamper the ability to communicate, find joy and build community on campus, while doing nothing to improve privacy.”

Click to play video: 'B.C. university recommends students remove TikTok from phones'
B.C. university recommends students remove TikTok from phones

TikTok’s statement comes as UBC recommends students to uninstall the app from their devices, and to use a web browser to access TikTok instead.

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The school said in a statement last week that the app is one of UBC’s fastest-growing social media platforms, used by students, staff and faculty for entertainment, research, outreach and recruitment.

However, UBC said TikTok has sparked security and privacy concerns about its data collection practices and data sharing with ByteDance. Although UBC said these risks are “not yet” proven, its privacy and information security teams “believe that TikTok does pose a risk to UBC’s systems and its stakeholders.”

The statement said that “of particular concern” was a reference in TikTok’s terms of service that the app may capture keystroke patterns used on a device, and that this could allow usernames and passwords to be exposed.

UBC said it isn’t considering a ban on TikTok use on university-owned devices yet, but some schools in Canada are.

On March 15, Dalhousie restricted the use of TikTok on school-owned or -subsidized devices, citing the federal and Nova Scotia government’s decision in a memo to the school community.

Click to play video: 'Ban of TikTok app on federal government devices sparks debate on security'
Ban of TikTok app on federal government devices sparks debate on security

TikTok was to be removed and not to be used on Dalhousie-owned or -subsidized devices, and the community was advised to refrain from accessing TikTok’s website on those devices. If TikTok is required for academic work, the school’s IT team is to be contacted, the memo stated.

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McGill employees are no longer allowed to have TikTok on mobile devices that have been provided to them by the university, or on any mobile device for which McGill covers the cost of the mobile service, a spokesperson told Global News.

They said the requirement was in accordance with a directive issued by the Quebec government in February.

“The directive applies to all public institutions subject to the act respecting the Governance and Management of the Information Resources of Public Bodies and Government Enterprises, which includes McGill and several other universities in Quebec,” they said.

In Newfoundland, Memorial University will be recommending the removal of TikTok on university-issued mobile devices, and will be issuing best practices regarding the secure use of apps and social media platforms, a spokesperson told Global News. They added that the university wasn’t advising students to uninstall TikTok at this time, citing the creation of its best practices.

A spokesperson for the University of Alberta said it is assessing the security and privacy risks of TikTok, as well as other social media platforms that collect personal data, and is reviewing the use of the app on university-owned devices. Other universities that responded to Global News’ requests said they weren’t considering such policies.

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TikTok parent company ‘not an agent of China’: CEO

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was grilled by U.S. lawmakers over the app last month, and said its parent company is “not an agent of China or any other country.”

TikTok has been trying to distance itself from its Chinese origins, saying that 60 per cent of ByteDance is owned by global institutional investors such as Carlyle Group. ByteDance was founded by Chinese entrepreneurs in Beijing in 2012.

Click to play video: 'TikTok CEO grilled by U.S. Congress on privacy, security concerns'
TikTok CEO grilled by U.S. Congress on privacy, security concerns

Lawmakers sought to paint a picture of TikTok as a Chinese-influenced company interested in gaining profit at the cost of Americans’ mental and physical health.

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Generally, researchers have said TikTok behaves like other social media companies when it comes to data collection. In an analysis released in 2021, the University of Toronto’s non-profit Citizen Lab found TikTok and Facebook collect similar amounts of user data.

To block such tracking, Congress, the White House, U.S. armed forces and more than half of U.S. states have banned the use of the app from official devices.

David Kennedy, a former U.S. government intelligence officer who runs the cybersecurity company TrustedSec, told The Associated Press last month that while he agrees with restricting TikTok access on government-issued phones because they might contain sensitive information, a nationwide ban, which the U.S. is considering, might be too extreme.

“We have Tesla in China, we have Microsoft in China, we have Apple in China. Are they going to start banning us now?” Kennedy asked.

“It could escalate very quickly.”

Ottawa probing foreign interference claims

The Liberal government has been under immense pressure to explain what it knew about foreign interference in the 2021 election after the Globe and Mail reported last month that intelligence sources said China attempted to interfere in that campaign to help the Liberals win another minority government.

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That report came after months of revelations from Global News about allegations of Chinese interference in the 2019 election.

Click to play video: 'Trudeau says government continues to ensure security services amid foreign interference claims'
Trudeau says government continues to ensure security services amid foreign interference claims

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ordered a slew of investigations into the matter, and tapped former governor general David Johnston to guide the government on its response to the threat. Johnston will have until May 23 to decide whether a public inquiry – a method many are calling for – is warranted.

Furthermore, in February, Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced that Ottawa would stop funding grant applications if the researchers working on them are affiliated with a foreign military, state security entities or certain foreign state actors, citing a need to protect Canadian national security.

Ottawa made the Feb. 15 announcement following a report from the Globe and Mail that indicated that since 2005, 50 Canadian universities have had extensive research collaborations with China’s military. The projects with China’s National University of Defence Technology included areas like quantum cryptography, photonics and space science, the newspaper reported.

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Champagne said protecting Canadian research is a matter of national security.

“This is a strong response to face the reality of today and making sure that research security in this country will have proper framework around it,” he said at the time.

“On one end, we respect the freedom of research, but at the same time, we protect the interest and our national security.”

— with files from The Associated Press

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