Cities and police services across Ontario say they are following the federal government’s lead in banning TikTok from work and government-owned devices, while others consider such bans, as privacy watchdogs assess the video-sharing platform for threats.
The City of Toronto says it has not decided whether to restrict the application on city-issued mobile devices but is actively monitoring for cybersecurity risks. A spokesperson for Hamilton said the city located on the western tip of Lake Ontario has kept its official TikTok account but removed the application from about 40 city-owned devices.
“The official account is not active and that account cannot be accessed by any city device … pending the investigation by the federal privacy office along with provincial privacy officers,” said Matthew Grant, a spokesperson for Hamilton.
“When the leader of the nation says they have concerns, well, we’re happy to listen,” he added.
The federal government banned the app from government-owned devices earlier this week after the chief information officer said it has an “unacceptable” level of risk to privacy and security. Provincial and federal privacy watchdogs recently announced an investigation into whether the video-sharing platform complies with privacy legislation.
A spokesperson for Ontario’s provincial government has said it is also reviewing whether it will ban the app while Alberta, Quebec, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and other provinces have already hit delete.
Similar reviews of the Chinese-owned application continue to spread across municipalities and police services.
The City of London has banned its employees from using TikTok on city-owned devices.
Niagara police said it asked its employees to remove TikTok from all service-issued devices earlier this month while it examines security concerns, but an official account that is only accessible to its communications unit remains active.
“We maintain a Service TikTok account as an engagement tool to be able to share public safety information as well as investigative information, while requesting community assistance,” said Stephanie Sabourin, a spokesperson for the city located in the Golden Horseshoe region of southern Ontario.
Waterloo police said its main account has also been paused and all members who have TikTok downloaded on their work phones have been directed to delete it pending reviews.
Brett Caraway, a professor of communication, culture, information and technology at the University of Toronto, says he is not surprised local governments are looking closely at the application.
“If you’re at the provincial level or the municipal level, and you haven’t followed suit, then the accusation can be raised that somehow you’re soft on security or soft on privacy issues,” he said in a phone interview.
“So once the federal ban was in place, I expected to see provinces and municipalities across Canada institute similar bans.”
Caraway added it’s clear federal governments might consider such a ban because they deal with highly sensitive matters.
“I’m not sure what the city government may necessarily be concerned with but maybe a data breach there could potentially have some sort of gain for an institution that would be partaking in espionage somehow. It depends on the type of data that they would have access to.”
Caraway said, however, the decision to delete police and city accounts comes at a cost.
“Municipal governments and law enforcement agencies at the local level use TikTok as a major outreach tool to get out information about campaigns, public events or issues of concern to local audiences,” he said.
“TikTok is also very popular with younger audiences so if you give it up, you are making it much more difficult to reach large groups of people and important demographics.”
He said that could be why Niagara police maintain an official TikTok account.
Allowing official accounts while barring employees from having the app on their personal devices “certainly raises the prospect of a double standard,” the professor added.
But he noted that appeals to public institutions because it’s easier to preserve the security of a single account managed by communication specialists than monitoring dozens of devices controlled by individual employees.
“You could run into a situation where employees were perhaps divulging sensitive information in direct messages. Or maybe they’re taking photographs of something that’s stored on their smartphone, that includes sensitive information and they never intentionally share it using the app, but the app has access to it nonetheless.”
Government agencies in the United States, India, Taiwan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, as well as the European Union have made similar moves.
The Chinese government has a stake in TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, and Chinese laws allow the country to demand access to user data.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 9, 2023.
Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press