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Ottawa still advertising on TikTok despite banning it on government devices due to security concerns

The federal government continues to advertise on TikTok, despite having banned the China-linked app from all government devices late last month due to security concerns. 

Ottawa told CBC News it’s running several taxpayer-funded ad campaigns on TikTok, a video-sharing service popular with young people. 

The ads promote government messaging on topics such as public safety, armed forces recruitment and online disinformation, said the Privy Council Office last week. 

The advertising campaigns pose no security concerns for the government because a third party ad agency posts them on TikTok, said Privy Council spokesperson Stéphane Shank in an email. 

But some tech experts argue Ottawa is sending Canadians a contradictory message and should suspend all advertising on the app. 

“It seems a little bit like a double standard to me to say, ‘Well, it’s it’s too dangerous for any of our employees to have, but it’s okay for reaching teenagers,'” said Brett Caraway, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology.

Vass Bednar sits at a desk.
The federal government should drop its ad campaigns on TikTok, says Vass Bednar, executive director of McMaster University’s Master of Public Policy in Digital Society Program. (McMaster University)

At a news conference last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he suspects that, following Ottawa’s device ban, many Canadians will reflect on using TikTok “and perhaps make choices in consequence.”

However, Ottawa’s ongoing ad campaigns look like “an implicit endorsement” of the app, said Vass Bednar, executive director of McMaster University’s Master of Public Policy in Digital Society Program.

“I don’t think it’s the right use of tax dollars if we are in fact so newly serious and cautious about this one app,” she said. “You sort of have to pick a lane.”

Spokesperson Shank said it’s up to Canadians to decide whether they want to use TikTok.

The government did not provide the cost of this year’s TikTok campaigns. Last year, it spent $1.7 million advertising on the platform. That’s more than the $1.6 million Ottawa spent advertising on LinkedIn last year, but far from the $11.4 million it spent on Facebook and Instagram ad campaigns. 

Several provinces halt TikTok ads

Like other social media apps, TikTok collects users’ personal information and monitors their use of the service.

However, it has received additional scrutiny because the platform’s parent company, Bytedance, is based in Beijing, and Chinese laws allow the government to demand access to companies’ user information.

TikTok says it does not operate in China and does not believe the country’s laws apply to the platform. 

Nevertheless, several countries, including the United States, have banned the app from government devices as a precautionary measure. All Canadian provinces have made the same move. 

WATCH | Department of National Defence TikTok ad:

ottawa still advertising on tiktok despite banning it on government devices due to security concerns 1

Department of National Defence ad on TikTok

1 day ago

Duration 0:14

This Department of National Defence recruitment ad appeared on TikTok between Feb. 27 and March 19.

CBC News asked each provincial government if their ban extends to ad campaigns. 

Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec said they have stopped advertising on TikTok. 

Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba and Alberta said they have no current plans to run ads on the app. 

Saskatchewan and B.C. said they’re still advertising on the platform, but Saskatchewan said it has paused work on future campaigns.

The U.S. government told CBC News it will not use TikTok, except in connection with national security, law enforcement or security research activities.

Toronto-based cybersecurity analyst Ritesh Kotak said he believes Ottawa maintaining its ads is a smart move, because it can harness the power of TikTok without involving government devices. The app boasts more than one billion active users worldwide, including millions of Canadians. 

“If you need to get messaging across, you’ve got to use the most effective medium possible,” said Kotak. 

But tech expert Caraway said Ottawa’s continued ad campaigns appear hypocritical as federal opposition parties have, as a result of the ban, stopped using TikTok to get their message out. 

“You’re asking them to give up quite a bit,” he said. “Yet [the Liberal government is] still leveraging it to reach people.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh had nearly 880,000 TikTok followers before he deactivated his account on Feb. 28. 

The Privy Council Office said Ottawa’s TikTok ads are non-partisan and promote awareness of its services and programs. 

U.S. eyeing TikTok ban?

Last month, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada launched a joint federal and provincial investigation into TikTok over concerns the platform’s collection, use and disclosure of personal data may not align with Canadian privacy legislation.

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner declined to comment on the federal government’s TikTok ad campaigns while the investigation is still active. 

WATCH | Breaking down TikTok concerns:

ottawa still advertising on tiktok despite banning it on government devices due to security concerns 2

Breaking down TikTok security concerns

3 months ago

Duration 6:58

The National’s Ian Hanomansing asks cyber security experts Brian Haugli and Alana Staszcyszyn about how worried TikTok users should be about having the app on their devices.

Kotak said if the government were to actually ban TikTok for all Canadians, then it would have to drop all ads on the app.

Ottawa has not said whether it’s considering a country-wide ban. According to TikTok, the U.S. has demanded that its Chinese owners sell their stakes in the app or face a possible ban there.

TikTok contends the divestiture would solve nothing. “A change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access,” said an unnamed spokesperson in an email to CBC News. “The best way to address concerns about national security is with the transparent, U.S.-based protection of U.S. user data and systems.”

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is set to testify before the U.S. Congress on Thursday to address concerns about the app’s safety and security.

TikTok also argues that banning the app on government devices is a pointless exercise. “All it does is prevent officials from reaching the public on a platform loved by millions of Canadians,” said the spokesperson. 

However, the federal government is still able to reach Canadians on TikTok via its ad campaigns. 

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