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A person scrolls through a TikTok feed on March 14.Laura Proctor/The Globe and Mail

Conor Healy is the director of government research at security technology research group IPVM. Margaret McCuaig-Johnston is a board director at the China Strategic Risks Institute.

Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne said on Friday that Canadians “should be happy to see that we were ahead of the curve” by launching a national security review of the video-sharing app TikTok six months ago. We are indeed happy that the federal government has turned its attention to TikTok. As a Five Eyes alliance member, Canada can incorporate the findings of the U.S. security review that has been under way since 2019. There have been alarming intelligence conclusions and media reports regarding the app and its Chinese owner ByteDance, and both countries need to take them seriously.

ByteDance engineers, including a “master admin” in Beijing with “access to everything,” have been found accessing and storing U.S. user data in China after TikTok representatives testified under oath that neither would occur. ByteDance has also used TikTok to covertly surveil multiple Western journalists, and it has enabled China’s government to attack U.S. politicians in intentionally divisive propaganda campaigns that reached millions.

The Canadian government already knows of TikTok’s significant risks. A year ago, along with the U.S., U.K., and EU, it banned TikTok from federal employees’ phones. We now know that TikTok isn’t just for teenagers; it could also be a tool for China’s government.

Explainer: The arguments for and against banning TikTok

In the U.S., TikTok has received more than a fair hearing since 2019, when it told federal officials it would neutralize the threats posed by its Beijing-based parent, and somehow strip ByteDance of power over its own app. To this end, TikTok launched Project Texas, a largely pointless initiative resting on the premise that by physically storing user data in the U.S., it would not be accessed from China, a scheme that appears almost purposefully designed to beguile those who do not understand how the internet works, and which ByteDance has already circumvented.

Unconvinced, U.S. lawmakers are now moving to have TikTok banned in the country if ByteDance doesn’t sell the app. The legislation was backed by the White House, the National Security Council and a supermajority of the House of Representatives, a rare consensus for Washington. Now it only needs to pass the Senate; President Joe Biden has pledged to sign it.

In reaction, TikTok orchestrated perhaps the largest lobbying campaign in U.S. history within 24 hours, unparalleled in its reach, delivering pleas for support to the screens of more than 170 million American users and facilitating calls to their representatives.

The case for forcing a TikTok sale revolves around two fundamental problems. First, personal user data can never be secure while TikTok’s parent is based in a country where the line separating corporations and the government is sliver-thin, the law requires that companies provide data and access if requested, and Western personal data is hacked at staggering scale.

Second, the risks of Beijing having direct influence over what more than eight million Canadians and 170 million Americans see not only imperils our democracies, but could also amplify military threats to critical infrastructure and people.

Last month, a landmark investigation co-authored by Five Eyes agencies found that Volt Typhoon, a Chinese government-linked military hacking group, has for years systematically cultivated access to IT systems in the communications, energy, transportation, and water utility sectors to prepare to inflict widespread chaos and destruction. FBI director Christopher Wray told Congress Volt Typhoon seeks to “wreak havoc … if or when China decides the time has come to strike.”

TikTok itself demonstrated its power to access to millions of screens last week. In the scenario Mr. Wray depicted, China could use TikTok to sow further chaos. This risk makes its ownership unacceptable for the U.S., Canada and NATO.

China itself recognizes the risks of foreign influence on its own citizens, and is moving to ban foreign software, aiming for a total shift to domestic providers by 2027 under its “Delete America” policy. It knows how such technology could be used against its own interests, having designed its own technology to do just that in the West.

Canada needs to fully back our closest ally on this issue, and Mr. Champagne should ask cabinet to ban TikTok if it remains under China’s control. Canadian TikTok content creators see the U.S as their paramount market, so they will also prefer to be on the U.S. version of the platform that will likely emerge after a sale.

In the past, Canada has been complacent in taking more than three years to ban Huawei from our 5G network and allowing the use of China’s genetic and police telecommunications technology. It’s time to demonstrate to our Five Eyes partners that we are serious about our own national security – and theirs.

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