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TikTok: Canadian universities take a stand

Posted by University Affairs on July 4, 2023 in Research

In December, the company behind TikTok admitted that it had used the social media app to spy on American journalists in an attempt to identify their sources.

“[TikTok] moved on and they announced that this was wrong, and policies will be [made], and it will not be repeated,” explained Nur Zincir-Heywood, the associate dean of research in the faculty of computer science at Dalhousie University and a cybersecurity specialist. “Following that, the U.S. government … started banning it and then [it was] followed by the EU, U.K., Canada. That admission back in December ended up with this domino effect.”

In late February, the Canadian government announced that it was banning the TikTok app on mobile devices it supplied to its staff. A number of provinces, municipalities and universities followed suit.

Mixed responses across the country

In Canada, this news garnered mixed reactions from universities, with Quebec’s response being the most restrictive. In February, the provincial government issued a directive that applies to all public bodies subject to the Quebec’s law directing information management at public bodies, which includes public universities. This directive prohibits university staff from installing TikTok on their work devices and forces them to uninstall the app if they already have it. It also prohibits using TikTok to generate new content for advertising campaigns, to share announcements, to recruit staff or for any other purpose. Quebec universities have also used the directive as a chance to raise awareness among students about TikTok’s privacy risks and have discouraged them from using the app.

Most universities in Atlantic Canada followed their provincial governments and banned TikTok on university devices. In Ontario, some institutions such as the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University chose not to enact such a ban even after the province restricted use on government devices.

In the Prairies, where the Government of Saskatchewan has banned government use of TikTok, the University of Saskatchewan has not yet issued any policies about the app, though it doesn’t recommend social media use on its devices. Saskatchewan Polytechnic, however, has taken a stance similar to that of Quebec universities and banned it. TikTok is prohibited on government devices in Manitoba, but the University of Manitoba hasn’t issued its own restrictions, opting instead to inform its community on the overall risks of social media use.

In British Columbia, the University of Victoria and the University of British Columbia have encouraged students to be careful and recommended accessing TikTok content through a web browser rather than directly in the app. A UBC spokesperson noted in an email to University Affairs that it continues to use TikTok “for brand channel engagement given that it continues to be an effective way to reach and communicate with a very significant audience online.”

Why were responses so mixed? In Quebec, security measures are decided by university boards, but the TikTok directive came from the province. “Universities generally follow the direction taken by provincial governments. I’m not sure every university gave this matter extensive thought,” said Manon Guillemette, a professor with Université de Sherbrooke’s school of management and a member of a research group on cybersecurity.

As for other provinces, Dr. Zincir-Heywood said she assumes that “organizations are monitoring the health of their networks and systems and platforms. Based on that, organizations can make judgment calls to minimize their risks.”

That’s the approach taken by Saskatchewan Polytechnic. The institution declined an interview – as did all other institutions contacted for this story – but offered an email statement: “Sask Polytech’s IT policies and procedures incorporate best practices to detect, mitigate and protect against cybersecurity threats.”

A controversial app

TikTok, a mobile app for video sharing, belongs to the Chinese company ByteDance. Many governments around the world, particularly in the U.S., worry that the company is sharing sensitive user information with Chinese authorities. “I think why we see a problem with TikTok goes back to who owns it, and that its parent company is from China. How much do they collect? How is it used by the parent company?” Dr. Zincir-Heywood said. However, China denies that it accesses this information “and we have no concrete proof,” noted Dr. Guillemette.

TikTok is just one of many apps that collect user information. “Social networks are all about collecting, processing, using and selling personal information,” Dr. Guillemette said. “Like other apps, TikTok asks for authorizations that it doesn’t actually need in order to function.” If a user initially refuses to share data, one of TikTok’s strategies is to keep asking until the user relents and allows the app to collect broader data.

Experts note that TikTok’s location tracking is of particular concern. Enabling tracking allows the app to know where the user is located, but it can also glean data beyond that. “TikTok isn’t the only app that asks users to enable GPS location-tracking,” Dr. Guillemette said. “The problem is that TikTok is a Chinese app. TikTok is also problematic because it collects information from other phones near you. You could end up giving away military secrets just by walking around the base with your phone. That’s a lot of information going to another country.”

An opportunity to raise awareness

While universities’ TikTok bans aren’t a panacea, they have helped raise awareness around the potential dangers of social media use. “It was a great opportunity to educate people on these issues, which users often don’t know about because no one reads the lengthy terms of use when they install an app,” Dr. Guillemette said. “These are all default settings,” Dr. Zincir-Heywood added. “If you restrict access to the microphone, camera, geolocation, that means inconvenience to you, the user.”

Though university policies don’t apply to personal devices “it’s still a good idea not to use social media on your professional device,” advised Dr. Guillemette. “Naturally, the pandemic blurred the lines a bit.”

Regardless, everyone is free to decide whether to use a social network or not. “I think it’s all about educating people on the pros and cons,” Dr. Zincir-Heywood said. “There is no free lunch. We are paying for these services with our data.”