Better late than never to ban TikTok from federal government devices and investigate whether the video-sharing app meets Canadian privacy laws, says an expert on Chinese social media companies.
But Benjamin Fung, a professor in the School of Information Studies at McGill University, says WeChat should have been included.
“If you talk about the intrusiveness of the app, WeChat is even worse,” Fung said.
Fung said Chinese-Canadians find WeChat – a popular social media, instant messaging and digital wallet app – useful to communicate with friends and family across the Pacific. It can also help new Canadians learn where to apply for a driver’s licence or social insurance number. But there is a dark underside that can undermine Canadian institutions and values.
“During the critical moments, like elections, then those communities will be used as a channel to spread disinformation,” Fung said.
In January 2022, Fung and Sze-Fung Lee co-authored a Policy Options analysis of the 2021 defeat of Conservative MP Kenny Chiu in the Steveston-Richmond East riding. A disinformation campaign, spread on WeChat, falsely claimed Chiu’s proposal for a foreign agents registry would apply to anyone of Chinese ethnicity. The Globe and Mail’s coverage of a leaked Canadian Security Intelligence Service report about the election reinforced Fung’s analysis.
In May 2020, the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto published “WeChat, They Watch” – a report that looked at how WeChat functions within China’s state surveillance and censorship regime. But the report’s authors revealed that parent company Tencent ignored questions about WeChat privacy policies. Tencent was “unwilling to provide any assistance or information above and beyond helping us use this tool: Our more specific data access request questions were never acknowledged, let alone responded to.”
In early January, Ohio banned its state workers from using both TikTok and WeChat. By mid-month, similar bans, mainly targeting TikTok, were announced by a total of 27 states. U.S. President Joe Biden has expanded the TikTok prohibition to federal devices.
During a Feb. 23 conference in Vancouver, the privacy commissioners of Canada, Quebec, B.C. and Alberta announced a joint investigation of TikTok’s handling of personal information, including whether children’s privacy is at risk. A representative of B.C. commissioner Michael McEvoy said WeChat would not be examined, but offered no reason.
The privacy commissioners cited U.S. class action lawsuits and media reports about TikTok. Last June, BuzzFeed reported on leaked audio recordings from internal TikTok meetings that showed China-based employees of its parent company ByteDance repeatedly accessed non-public data about users in the U.S.
On Feb. 27, Canada’s Treasury Board president Mona Fortier gave federal workers one day’s notice to remove TikTok from government devices. She cited security risks, but said there was no evidence yet of government information being compromised.
B.C. Citizens’ Services Minister Lisa Beare followed Fortier’s lead and announced a temporary TikTok ban on B.C. government devices “as we continue to examine the risks associated with the app.”
For the wider public, Fortier said social media apps and platforms are a personal choice, but echoed the Communications Security Establishment’s caution to put personal security before convenience and consider where data is stored.
Fung said TikTok users are vulnerable to inadvertently sharing information on their devices, including passwords. Despite ByteDance claiming that U.S.-housed data is safe, its workers in China are legally obliged to cooperate when the Chinese government demands to see data.
“It's just like a Chinese company wearing a mask, and then pretending to be an American company,” Fung said. “So if there's strong evidence showing that the engineer in China can access the data in Canada, or in America, then the privacy commissioner should look into that very closely.”
Fung said TikTok is built on a very powerful "recommender system,” a machine-learning algorithm that helps decide what the user sees.
“This tool has the power to change people's perception on some particular issues,” Fung said.