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

OTTAWA: An intelligence report obtained by Star suggests the federal government was warned that TikTok misled the public and governments about its data collection and security practices months before Ottawa banned the app on 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 number of concerns about the popular video-sharing app.

“As of 2022, there are over eight million Canadian TikTok users, ranging from 55 percent teens to members of Parliament. It collects your data, offering false public and governmental guarantees about the sovereignty and security of the data, ”says the letter, which was obtained through a request for access to information.

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 city governments and also saw political leaders exit the app, came after Canada’s chief information officer Catherine Luelo discovered that TikTok posed a privacy and security risk.” unacceptable” for users.

Treasury Board Chair Mona Fortier described the move as a precaution “given concerns about the legal regime governing information collected from mobile devices” but noted there was “no evidence” that the government Canadian would have been compromised.

TikTok’s parent company, Bytedance, is based in Beijing, raising concerns among Canada and its allies that the Chinese government could force the companies to hand over user data for intelligence purposes.

TikTok has said that Chinese national intelligence law does not apply to its app because Canadian data is stored in the US and Singapore, and that Canadian users’ information has never been requested by Beijing.

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

The Treasury Board was unable to explain how Luelo reached its conclusions without consulting the company, prompting Star to file an access to information request.

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

Asked how the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat concluded that TikTok was providing “false” assurances 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 intelligence report drafted and released only partially points out that the platform’s one billion users are “unknowingly exposing themselves” to significant risks when using the app. He warns that TikTok’s reach has created “a globally integrated, pervasive collection and influencer platform for Beijing to exploit.”

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

TikTok told Star that it stands by its previous 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 sit down with government officials to clarify the app’s operations and practices and is ready to have those discussions now.

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

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

“If people view TikTok…as illegitimate due to ill-substantiated (information), I think that bodes poorly for other areas where the government is trying to intervene in digital markets with very good intentions.”

Bednar said it shouldn’t be necessary to submit information requests to understand why the government makes important decisions, such as banning only TikTok on government devices, rather than other social media platforms with similar privacy concerns.

“I’m not a fan of social media: TikTok, Meta, Twitter, it doesn’t matter, I have reviews for everyone. But I feel like if you’re going to take some bold action, like requesting the app be removed from phones or banned, whether it’s federally or provincially, you need to make that case based on some kind of evidence. and I have yet to see that,” said Brett Caraway, an associate professor at the Institute for Communication, Culture, Information and Technology at the University of Toronto.

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

“I think what people can do is keep calling and pushing 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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