OTTAWA — The Canadian government is not warning against downloads of the popular Chinese app TikTok, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s office confirmed Tuesday, though the United States is telling its citizens using the platform means they’re handing their private data over to the Chinese Communist Party.
“The role of Public Safety is to ensure that our cyber networks are secure,” Blair’s press secretary Mary-Liz Power told HuffPost Canada. “We work with the national cyber security strategy and the centre to ensure that Canadians are safe when they are online, but there has been no, you know, directions about specific social media companies.”
In a statement, Blair said: “Our government continues to work in close collaboration with agencies and leaders in the technology sector to ensure Canadians and our systems are protected.”
Watch: U.S. considering banning TikTok, Mike Pompeo says
Blair’s comments come on the heels of warnings by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Americans should download TikTok “only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”
The app allows users to create and share short videos, which are typically meant to be humorous. It is the No. 1 entertainment app in Canada. Globally, it has been downloaded more than two billion times, according to Sensor Tower estimates.
In an interview Monday on Fox News, Pompeo suggested potential restrictions against TikTok may be coming, saying he didn’t want to trump any announcement the U.S. president might make.
“…We’re taking this very seriously,” he told host Laura Ingraham. “…We’ve worked on this very issue for a long time, whether it was the problems of having Huawei technology in your infrastructure. We’ve gone all over the world and we’re making real progress getting that out. We declared ZTE [a Chinese telecommunications firm] a danger to American national security. We’ve done all of these things.
“With respect to Chinese apps on people’s cell phones, I can assure you the United States will get this one right too, Laura,” Pompeo said. “I don’t want to get out in front of the president, but it’s something we’re looking at.”
Tuesday, TikTok announced it would stop operating the app in Hong Kong because of “recent events.” On June 30, Beijing enacted a sweeping new national security law designed to crack down on political dissent and reduce the territory’s autonomy. The company did not say why it was exiting Hong Kong, but Bloomberg suggested its retreat could also benefit the Communist Party by removing a forum for pro-democracy protesters to call for Hong Kong’s independence.
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau does not have a TikTok account, his office confirmed. Outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is also not present on the app.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, however, uses TikTok frequently and has more than 300,000 followers on the platform.
Asked about any security concerns the party may have, spokesperson Melanie Richer said Singh uses the social media site as a way to reach and stay in touch with young people.
“We’re paying attention to the latest news concerning TikTok and monitoring the situation,” she said.
TikTok has already been banned in India, as have nearly 60 other Chinese apps.
Australian legislators are also considering a probe into the app. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has urged caution when using it.
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According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Sen. Jenny McAllister, chair of Australia’s Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference Through Social Media, believes concerns about the platform are well founded.
“There have been credible reports that TikTok takes more data than its users would expect, and moderates content for reasons that its users may not be comfortable with,” she is quoted as saying.
TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a company headquartered in Beijing. Its Australian general manager, Lee Hunter, has said they do not share Australian users’ data with other governments, including China’s and “would not do so if asked.”
Both Australia and India are locked in disputes with China. India recently had a military clash on the border that left 20 Indian soldiers dead. Australia has been involved in diplomatic spats flowing from the concerns over China’s influence domestically, the decision to ban Huawei from Australia’s 5G rollout, and its government’s leading a call for an international independent inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That inquiry is something that Canada has supported and, for that, has incurred the wrath of Beijing.
Feds taking tougher stand against China
In recent days, Ottawa has also taken a tougher stand against China. Trudeau said Friday that Canada joined the international community in expressing its “grave concern” at the passing of the national security law — legislation developed without Hong Kong’s input.
In retaliation, Trudeau announced Canada would treat exports of sensitive goods in the same way as those destined for mainland China, and it would not permit sensitive military exports to Hong Kong. The federal government also suspended the Canada-Hong Kong extradition treaty and updated its travel advisory, warning Canadians that they “may be at increased risk of arbitrary detention on national security grounds and possible extradition to mainland China.”
Trudeau said Canada would also look at immigration measures — possibly welcoming more Hong Kong citizens to Canada, for example, through asylum claims, longer-term visas, or a new path towards citizenship.
The government is “extremely concerned,” Trudeau said, about the erosion of the one-country-two-systems principle that he said was “so important” to the 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong and its other residents.
On Monday, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said Canada had violated international norms and was grossly interfering in China’s domestic affairs.
In a statement, posted on the embassy’s website, China said it had issued a travel alert against visiting Canada, citing domestic protests and police brutality.
Spokesman Zhao Lijian was quoted saying that China “reserves the right to take further measures, and Canada should bear all the consequences.”
The government of China is “strongly determined to safeguard its national sovereignty” and “any plot to pressure China will not succeed,” Lijian said, according to the statement.
China is now prosecuting Canadians citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were arrested in 2018, on spying charges — a move widely seen as retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition request.
She remains on house arrest while her case is proceeding through the court system.
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Canada has yet to make a formal decision on whether to bar Huawei from the country’s 5G network. It remains the only Five Eyes country — the intelligence-sharing alliance made up of the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and Canada — not to take a public stand.
Last month, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said China was applying pressure on Canada to allow Huawei, even though military officials have reportedly warned the government introducing the Chinese telecom giant would threaten national security. The U.S. State Department has said it will reassess intelligence sharing with its northern neighbour if Huawei is allowed into the country’s network. As Ottawa postponed making a decision, Canada’s three major telecoms shifted away from Huawei, with Bell and Telus announcing they will be making arrangements with rivals Nokia and Ericsson.