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Revealed: Intelligence warned that TikTok gave Ottawa ‘false’ reassurances about its data collection


OTTAWA—An intelligence brief obtained by the Star suggests the federal government was warned TikTok misled the public and governments about its data harvesting and security practices months before Ottawa banned the app from federal devices.

The detail comes from a document prepared by the Privy Council Office’s Intelligence Assessment Secretariat, which compiled a brief for the government last September outlining a series of concerns about the wildly popular video sharing app.

“As of 2022, there are over eight million Canadian TikTok users, ranging from 55 per cent of teenagers to members of Parliament. It harvests their data, offering false public and governmental reassurances about data sovereignty and security,” notes the brief, which was obtained through an access to information request.

Five months after the document was prepared, the Canadian government blocked the app from all government-issued mobile devices. The decision, which was mirrored by other provincial and municipal governments and also saw political leaders exit the app, came after Canada’s chief information officer, Catherine Luelo, found TikTok posed an “unacceptable” privacy and security risk to users.

Treasury Board President Mona Fortier painted the move as a precautionary measure “given concerns about the legal regime that governs the information collected from mobile devices,” but noted there had been “no evidence” the Canadian government had been compromised.

TikTok’s parent company, Bytedance, is headquartered in Beijing, which has sparked concern among Canada and its allies over whether the Chinese government could compel companies to hand over user data for intelligence purposes.

TikTok has said Chinese national intelligence law doesn’t apply to its app because Canadian data is stored in the U.S. and Singapore, and that Beijing has never requested Canadian users’ information.

The company has long pushed back against the Canadian government’s rationale, telling the Star in March no one from Ottawa ever spoke to TikTok officials about the validity of their concerns or shared on what information its decision was based.

Treasury Board was unable to explain how Luelo came to her conclusions without consulting the company, prompting the Star to submit an access to information request.

The documents released show the government has serious and widespread concerns about the app. But they also show Ottawa is relying on “flawed” reports and refusing to conduct its own independent research on TikTok’s practices, the company told the Star on Friday.

When asked how the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat concluded TikTok was providing “false” reassurances, and whether that included false promises to the Canadian government, the PCO said the report “speaks for itself” and would not comment further publicly.

The redacted and only partially released intelligence brief notes that the platform’s one billion users “unwittingly expose” themselves to significant risks by using the app. It warns TikTok’s reach has created “a globally embedded and ubiquitous collection and influence platform for Beijing to exploit.”

It also says the platform has access to a user’s device, location, contacts, personal information, and “biometric identifiers” like a user’s face and voice. The app’s “adoption of new technologies practically ensures it will harvest greater variety of sensitive Western data,” the document notes, while referring to multiple unnamed sources suggesting “Western data remains accessible to China.”

TikTok told the Star it stands by its earlier statements that Beijing has no direct or indirect control over the app and that it is not subject to Chinese law. A spokesperson said the company remains willing to come to the table with government officials to clarify the app’s operations and practices and is ready to have those conversations now.

The company’s response echoes the battles the Liberal government is currently waging with tech giants Meta and Google over its recently passed online news law. Google announced this week that its artificial intelligence chatbot, Bard, would be made available in almost every country — but not in Canada. Ottawa already faced off against TikTok and YouTube earlier this year over the government’s controversial online streaming law.

“The government’s trying to build legitimacy as a regulator of digital markets,” said Vass Bednar, the executive director of McMaster University’s master of public policy program.

“If people see TikTok … as illegitimate because of poorly substantiated (information), I think that bodes badly for other areas where the government is trying to intervene in digital marketplaces with very good intentions.”

Bednar said it shouldn’t be necessary to submit information requests to understand why the government makes significant decisions like banning only TikTok on government devices, instead of other social media platforms with similar privacy concerns.

“I’m no fan of social media — TikTok, Meta, Twitter, it doesn’t matter, I have criticisms of all of them. But I feel like if you’re going to take a bold action, like requesting that the app be removed off of phones or banning it, either at the federal or provincial level, you need to make that case based on evidence of some kind, and I have yet to see that,” said Brett Caraway, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology.

“What we need is a consistent, systematic regulatory framework for social media,” Caraway added.

“I think what individuals can do is continue to call and put pressure on their local representatives to address this in a formal way, with a regulatory framework that outlines very specific privacy protections for Canadian citizens across all social media platforms.”

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel

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