A Canadian TikTok ban on government devices and ongoing probes into how the video-sharing app uses Canadians’ data have put the spotlight on what individuals can do to protect their data and personal privacy.
For many Canadians, skimming past terms of service, agreeing to cookies, and choosing whether to “allow app to track” their mobile device use has become a matter of routine.
But Canada’s former spymaster is warning that even if Canadians aren’t already worried about their personal information falling into the wrong hands, they should be.
“The more information that a foreign state, Chinese or other, have on you, it provides them opportunities for blackmail, for coercion, for influencing,” said former CSIS director Richard Fadden.
Here’s why experts say you should care about your online privacy.
Why should you care about your privacy on TikTok?
The concerns clouding the social media platform stem from TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance.
The company has faced criticism from those who warn that China’s government could access user data, such as browsing history and location — thanks to a Chinese law that requires private companies to cooperate with Beijing if asked.
TikTok banned on all Canadian government devices over ‘unacceptable’ risk
While TikTok has taken steps to try to reassure countries that it will safeguard user data, many — including the United States, Canada and the European Commission — have banned the application on government-issued devices.
Still, few governments have taken the step of banning the use of the controversial application altogether. That includes Canada, which has left it up to Canadians to decide whether to have the app on their personal devices — for now.
“I’m always a fan of giving Canadians the information for them to make the right decisions for them,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said when pressed on the decision on Monday.
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TikTok collects a lot of data about its users — from the device you are using, to your location, your IP address, your search history and even the content of your messages, according to a 2021 article from Wired.
While you might not care that the application knows all of these things about you, that information can be very valuable to the company collecting it.
“Our datasets in and of themselves aren’t that valuable to platforms, but they become valuable in aggregate,” said Vass Bednar, executive director of the Master of Public Policy in Digital Society program at McMaster University.
“The value is created by (tech companies) maintaining the data in their ecosystem and using it to make strategic business decisions, be they algorithmic, be they selling access to that platform.”
User data can also be used creatively to compromise national security — as users of the fitness tracking app Strava learned, when the application’s data map risked unveiling the location of secret U.S. military bases, according to both Bednar and an article from The Guardian.
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In the wrong hands, your data could also be used to influence or even change your personal behaviour, warned Anatoliy Gruzd, co-director of the Social Media Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University.
“That’s the dark side of this type of technology, is that we don’t really realize, as individuals, that we’re being manipulated in certain ways,” Gruzd warned.
As an example of this, Gruzd pointed to Russian troll farms that targeted American social media users ahead of the 2016 election — a finding the U.S. justice department highlighted in 2018.
Russians working for a group called the “Internet Research Agency” gathered like-minded followers together on issues like religion and immigration in 2014 — then in 2015, they bought ads to spread their messages.
By 2016, they used these followers to “help organize political rallies across the United States,” a New York Times article warned.
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Why would China, or any foreign government, care about you?
In the case of TikTok, Beijing’s laws open the door to the Chinese government potentially accessing its user data — a concern that strikes at the heart of the issue for many lawmakers around the world.
It’s also an area of concern for Fadden.
“Imagine that you have the most nefarious negative intent about your neighbor across the street and that you can have access to all of their personal information — and think of what you could do,” Fadden said.
“Multiply that a thousand times when you’re dealing with the nation state and they’ll give you some sense of the possibilities — it doesn’t mean it will happen.”
Even if you think you wouldn’t be targeted by foreign nations, you might be wrong, Fadden warned.
He used the example of a waitress or waiter working at a restaurant — perhaps one where politicians or officials of interest to a particular foreign actor tend to gather after work.
TikTok ban on government-issued devices important to protect Canadians’ information: Mendicino
If a foreign government learned through your personal data that you had financial woes, they could view you as a target and approach you with an offer.
“Before you know it, you’ve made a commitment in return for some money to just report on a conversation you may have heard over coffee,” Fadden said.
“I’m exaggerating the simplicity of it … But these things do happen.”
There can also be a gulf between who the average person considers to be unimportant and who a nation-state cares about, Fadden said.
“For one thing, most of these individual adversaries take a much longer view. You may have waitressed when you were on your way to university. In 10 years time, you may be an MP,” Fadden said.
“So they develop these very comprehensive and detailed databases that can be used over time.”
While these may be simplified examples, Fadden says he’s a great believer in “preventative medicine” as opposed to “curative medicine.”
“That’s what we’re talking about here — don’t just give out the information,” he said.
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Users should also be cognizant of what the tailored TikTok algorithm is serving to them, Fadden added, and question it.
“They can adjust the media, they can ensure that particular people are talked to in a particular way. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that — if you know that it is happening. The problem is that in 99 per cent of the time we sort of forget about it entirely,” Fadden said.
“If you think about other states, not just China, but a variety of others, their intentions are not benign and they would use every bit of data they can get their hands on to push or pull individuals in one direction or the other without their knowing.”
Still, the former spymaster said, if you’d still like to use TikTok, that’s “fine.”
“But don’t only use TikTok. Check some of the things that they’re saying. Try and balance a little bit,” he said. “I would argue that’s true of anybody using any app. You should never we should never use only one.”
Is TikTok worse than other social media?
In a statement responding to the news of Canada’s TikTok ban on government devices, a spokesperson for the social media company questioned the timing of the government’s announcement.
“It’s curious that the Government of Canada has moved to block TikTok on government-issued devices—without citing any specific security concern or contacting us with questions—only after similar bans were introduced in the EU and the US,” the spokesperson said.
“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.”
TikTok banned on Canadian government-regulated devices
So far, the government has explained the decision to ban TikTok on government devices by saying that the Chief Information Officer of Canada determined, after a review of TikTok, that the application “presents an unacceptable level of risk to privacy and security.”
Bednar suggested the government should be more clear about the underlying reasons for the ban.
“Canadians, I don’t think, have enough information on what these what the new analysis has told us that that leads us to diagnose this ‘unacceptable level of risk,’” Bednar said.
“I find that frustrating.”
TikTok is facing a joint investigation from Canadian privacy watchdogs
She said the concerns raised about TikTok also reflect the need to beef up Canadian privacy laws to better protect consumers on how companies use, store and sell their information, following high-profile headlines involving other companies like Home Depot, Indigo and Telus over recent weeks.
In the absence of strong privacy laws to protect them, Canadians do have ways they can safeguard their data online — without necessarily logging off for good.
Users can start by “checking the settings inside the app,” according to Gruzd, including “what type of data” they consent to sharing with a platform — particularly anything “targeted,” he said.
And, if you decide to stop using an app, Gruzd said, “you can always request the data to be deleted.”
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