Russia and China’s assertive behaviour on the global stage continues to be a matter of concern. Their activities have had a direct impact on Canadian national security in the forms of hostage diplomacy, foreign interference, and disinformation. Rarely do Canadians pause to consider national security matters as it does not dominate the news cycle and is usually not the primary  focus of our domestic elections.

However, the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have transformed the ways in which social connectivity is perceived and understood. In particular, Canadians are enthusiastic adopters of social media, and the COVID-19 pandemic only increased our dependence on cyberspaces for social connectivity and news gathering. Social media has become an essential part of everyday life, a type of metaphorical town square, where individuals engage with one another for better or for worse. The emergence of new technologies and their increasing popularity has given rise to newer digital and social media platforms, like TikTok.

TikTok is a free social media app owned by the Chinese tech company ByteDance. On TikTok, users can create and share videos using a variety of filters and effects. This is the first Chinese-based social media app to reach such high levels of global engagement. Notably, in 2021, it had more active users than Twitter, more U.S. watch minutes than YouTube, more app downloads than Facebook, and more site visits than Google. Today, it is the most-downloaded photo and video app in the Apple Store and has now reached around 2.5 billion app installs globally. However, certain aspects of the app are a cause for concern. The app has come under fire over privacy concerns, more specifically, regarding the recent changes to TikTok’s privacy policy, which reportedly give various governments access to user data.

In Canada, there have been calls for Canada to consider a more assertive stance against the app, such as adopting India’s decision to ban the app altogether. But while Canada, like many other nations, has national security concerns it grapples with, an important set of questions should be considered: are all issues facing the world today issues that Canada needs to specifically confront? More specifically, are these concerns inflated and politicized for reasons separate from Canada’s interests and values? Is TikTok more dangerous than currently existing social media platforms? Or, is its general link to China the qualifying (or in some cases the deciding) factor in questions around its perceived threat level? TikTok is the most recent app that has been accused of providing information for China. Is there merit to these accusations?

According to multiple sources, TikTok captures information from its users, such as internet and network activity information, location data, browsing histories, and users’ personal and proprietary information, all of which can be given to the Chinese government as a legal obligation upon request. This allegation resulted in swift responses from other governments around the world. For example, after deadly border clashes with China in 2021, the Indian government banned TikTok and dozens of other Chinese apps citing cybersecurity concerns. Pakistan, a longtime ally of Beijing, also levied temporary bans on TikTok over what it has called “indecent content”.

National security concerns posed by TikTok heightened under former U.S President Donald Trump’s administration. The U.S military banned its members from using the app on government devices (or at all) in late 2019 and early 2020. In August 2020, President Trump signed an executive order insisting that TikTok sell itself to an American firm or be banned in the United States. A few months later, after seeking an American buyer, ByteDance eventually partnered with Oracle in 2020, and under current President Joe Biden, the sale of TikTok has been shelved.

While privacy concerns and security vulnerabilities around TikTok are not unfounded, and while Western democracies do have independent privacy watchdogs that mitigate government overreach, the U.S government, for example, regularly attempts to obtain data on Americans through tech companies. TikTok is transparent about the data it collects. Additionally, China itself has banned Facebook, Google, Twitter and TikTok. So, is TikTok really a problem? And is it a national security problem for Canada?

To put it plainly, yes. TikTok really is a problem for Canada. The app poses legitimate national security risks, ones that we must pay close attention to. While some have interestingly pointed out that there are “there numerous political motivations” around the calls for TikTok to be banned, evidence countering these findings is comprehensive. For example, leaked audio from dozens of internal meetings at TikTok obtained by BuzzFeed shows that American user data has been repeatedly accessed by the Chinese government. Additionally, in a House Homeland Security Committee hearing in the U.S, concerns were raised around China’s ability to use the app to push influence through TikTok’s powerful recommendation algorithm and control software for espionage purposes. This, of course, has important implications for Canada. Thus, TikTok poses a risk for Canadian national security. There have been calls for Canada to revamp its national security policies by “[identifying] new tools and authorities, [reforming] institutions, [devoting] new resources to security, and [seeking] new partnerships”. This direction can help inform a new and necessary national security (and foreign policy) statement to replace the one released just under 20 years ago. Future statements should consider rapidly evolving technological changes, the proliferation of social media platforms, and methods to engage civil society as to spread information and educate in ways that are relevant and engaging to users of applications like TikTok. 

Julianne Oduro is a M.A. candidate in the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, specializing in Intelligence and International Affairs. She has a bachelor’s degree in Gender and Women’s Studies and a Masters in Disaster and Emergency Management both from York University. Her research interests include disinformation, foreign interference, international security, cybersecurity, intelligence studies, and philosophy and ethics.

Photo Credit via Solen Feyissa

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