The federal government will remove the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok from all government-issued mobile devices on Feb. 28 in response to privacy and security concerns, Treasury Board President Mona Fortier announced Monday.

The government will also block the app from being downloaded on official devices in the future.

After a review of TikTok, the Chief Information Officer of Canada decided the app “presents an unacceptable level of risk to privacy and security,” Ms. Fortier said in a statement. The popular app is used for making and posting short videos, which are often accompanied by catchy music and focused on trends, including dances and pranks. Rola Salem, a Treasury Board spokesperson, said in a statement that besides TikTok, no other social media apps are being blocked at this time, though the government is conducting a “broader review of social media applications on work devices.”

Ms. Fortier said the decision to remove and block TikTok was made because of concerns about “the legal regime that governs the information collected from mobile devices,” adding that, “TikTok’s data collection methods provide considerable access to the contents of the phone.” She did say, however, that the government has no evidence that its information has been compromised.

The change also brings Canada in line with the approach taken by international partners, Ms. Fortier said. Last week, for instance, the European Commission said it had, for security reasons, temporarily banned employees from having the app on official mobile phones.

A coalition of Canadian privacy protection authorities, including the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, announced last week it is investigating TikTok. That investigation will determine whether TikTok’s practices are in compliance with Canada’s privacy laws. Earlier this year, a House of Commons committee agreed to begin a study of how social media platforms are using Canadians’ personal data for “data harvesting and unethical/illicit sharing of personal information with foreign entities.” That examination will include a look at TikTok.

TikTok has also been under intense scrutiny in the United States. The U.S. government approved a ban on official federal government devices late last year, and, according to the Associated Press, more than half of U.S. states have also done the same. According to NPR, the FBI has expressed concern that the Chinese government could use the app to control users’ devices, or conduct influence campaigns.

Covert Chinese influence on Canadian affairs is of increasing concern to policy-makers. Recent reporting by The Globe and Mail has revealed China’s efforts to influence the federal elections in 2019 and 2021.

Asked Monday why a wider ban of the app isn’t being implemented, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters that Canadians’ freedom of expression and how they want to engage online is important – and should be respected. However, he did say the ban would likely have an impact beyond government.

“I suspect that as government takes the significant step of telling all federal employees that they can no longer use TikTok on their work phones, many Canadians – from businesses to private individuals – will reflect on the security of their own data and perhaps make choices in consequence,” he said.

TikTok spokesperson Danielle Morgan said the federal government was “singling” out TikTok.

“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 U.S.,” she said in a statement Monday.

The spokesperson said the government’s decision will only serve to “prevent officials from reaching the public on a platform loved by millions of Canadians.”

The federal government has not been entirely unfriendly to TikTok, however. In 2021 to 2022, the government spent about $1.7-million for advertising on TikTok, making up 8 per cent of its social media advertising expenditures that year, according to government figures.

While federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is known for his use of TikTok, he’s not the only federal politician on the platform. Those with verified accounts include cabinet ministers Gudie Hutchings and Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Conservative MP Scott Aitchison and NDP MP Matthew Green. Senators Kim Pate and Bernadette Clement also have accounts.

Monica Granados, a press secretary for the Treasury Board President, said in a statement that MPs may continue to operate accounts on TikTok using devices other than those issued by the federal government.

The Globe and Mail, February 27, 2023