Canadian privacy protection authorities have launched a joint investigation into TikTok, following class-action lawsuits over the Chinese-owned social media app’s privacy practices, and as concerns over Beijing’s interference in Canadian affairs continue to grow.
The agencies involved in the investigation are the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, and the provincial privacy commissioners’ offices in Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta. In a joint news release on Thursday, the commissioners said they will examine whether or not TikTok’s practices are in compliance with Canada’s privacy laws.
That will mean determining whether the smartphone app is obtaining “valid and meaningful” consent from users for its collection, use and disclosure of their personal information. The app is used for making and posting short videos, which are often accompanied by catchy music and focused on trends, including dances and pranks.
“An important proportion of TikTok users are younger users,” the news release says. “Given the importance of protecting children’s privacy,” it adds, the investigation will focus on TikTok’s practices as they relate to kids who use the app.
TikTok has been under increasing scrutiny in Canada and the United States, and not only for reasons related to children’s well-being. According to NPR, the FBI has expressed concern that the Chinese government could use the app to control users’ devices, or conduct influence campaigns.
To date, more than half of U.S. states have banned TikTok from government devices. On Thursday, the European Commission said it had, for security reasons, temporarily banned employees from having the app on phones used for official business, according to the Associated Press.
Covert Chinese influence on Canadian affairs is of increasing concern to policy-makers. Earlier this month, the North American Aerospace Defence Command shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon. Recent reporting by The Globe and Mail has revealed China’s efforts to influence the federal elections in 2019 and 2021, and the country’s use of monitoring buoys in the Arctic.
If the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada were to find TikTok is not in compliance with federal privacy law, its options for rebuke would be limited. While the federal office can offer findings and make recommendations, it does not have the power to levy fines or issue orders. If a company does not voluntarily co-operate in an investigation, the commissioner has the power to summon witnesses and compel the production of evidence, however.
TikTok spokesperson Danielle Morgan said in a statement Thursday that the company will work with the Canadian privacy authorities “to set the record straight on how we protect the privacy of Canadians.”
“The privacy and safety of the TikTok community, particularly our younger users, is always a top priority,” she added.
A Canadian class-action lawsuit filed in 2020 accused TikTok of mishandling the data of its young users.
The representative plaintiff in that case alleged that TikTok commercialized the private information of underage users without obtaining parental consent, violating several Canadian laws in the process. Some or all of users’ private information – such as names, e-mail addresses and phone numbers – was “surreptitiously transmitted to China,” the claim alleges.
Sharon Bauer, a lawyer and the founder of Bamboo Data Consulting, which works with clients on privacy compliance, said in an interview it was “absolutely a good decision” for the privacy protection authorities to launch an investigation into TikTok.
“I think it will give businesses a lot more direction and guidance in terms of what is expected, in terms of obtaining proper consent when it comes to children’s personal information,” she said. “When we’re dealing with children – who are very impressionable and easily influenced – that is where it becomes very sensitive.”
Around this time last year, a coalition of state attorneys general in the U.S. announced a national investigation into “the harms using TikTok can cause to young users and what TikTok knew about those harms.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada can’t force companies to participate in its investigations. This version has been corrected.