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‘Anything TikTok knows, assume China knows’: Experts urge Canadians to be wary of app

‘Anything TikTok knows, assume China knows’: Experts urge Canadians to be wary of app
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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.

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.

Pompeo says U.S. ‘looking at’ banning Chinese social media apps, including TikTok

Pompeo says U.S. ‘looking at’ banning Chinese social media apps, including TikTok

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?

“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.”

Security concerns over Chinese-owned apps, like TikTok

Security concerns over Chinese-owned apps, like TikTok

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.

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.

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But there have been allegations the company may be censoring politically sensitive content as well as handing over user data to the Chinese government.

“Most recently, one of the most disturbing [security concerns] is that it looks at the clipboard on your phone,” Skillicorn said. “That’s where people cut and paste things like passwords, so any software looks at the clipboard, you want to assume from the start that it’s up to no good.”

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.

LISTEN: Why people becoming so suspicious of TikTok

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.

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.

“We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked,” the company said.
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