Politics

TikTok execs insist China can't access user data during meeting with MPs

Parliamentarians grilled a pair of TikTok executives on the security of Canadians' privacy — and whether China can access the popular social media app's data — during a House committee meeting on Wednesday.

Under Chinese law, Beijing can demand access to Chinese companies' user information

A hand holds a cell phone displaying the TikTok logo.
The TikTok logo on a cell phone on Oct. 14, 2022. (Michael Dwyer/The Associated Press)

Parliamentarians grilled a pair of TikTok executives on the security of Canadians' privacy — and whether China can access the popular social media app's data — during a House committee meeting on Wednesday.

The executives repeatedly told MPs on the access to information, privacy and ethics committee that China and the ruling Chinese Communist Party are not able to view user data. One executive said China has not requested any data at all.

"The Chinese government has not asserted the rights over any TikTok user data," said David Lieber, head of TikTok's privacy public policy for the Americas.

TikTok's corporate owner, ByteDance, is based in Beijing. Under Chinese national security laws, the government can demand access to Chinese companies' user information.

The executives did acknowledge that Canadian TikTok data is hosted in the U.S., Malaysia and Singapore. They pointed out that TikTok's operations in Canada are subject to Canadian privacy laws.

Steve de Eyre, Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs at TikTok Canada, sits in a committee room before testifying before a House of Commons committee on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023.
Steve de Eyre, director of public policy and government affairs at TikTok Canada, sits in a committee room before testifying before a House of Commons committee on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. (Benjamin Lopez Steven/CBC News)

Over the past year, officials in Canada and around the world have scrutinized TikTok over alleged security issues. In February, the federal government banned the app from all government-issued phones following a review by Canada's chief information officer.

Other countries like the U.S. and U.K. followed suit by banning TikTok from their government devices. One U.S. state, Montana, went even further by banning the app altogether starting on Jan. 1, 2024. TikTok has filed a lawsuit contesting the legislation.

Meanwhile, Canadian federal and provincial privacy commissioners are conducting a joint investigation into TikTok's compliance with privacy laws. The commissioners say they want to determine if the company is meeting its "transparency obligations" when collecting personal information from users.

Steve de Eyre, director of public policy and government affairs for TikTok Canada, denied claims that ByteDance is "owned or controlled by the Chinese government." Eyre and Leiber said that ByteDance has offices around the world and three of its five board members are American.

NDP MP Matthew Green pressed further, asking the executives whether China has backdoor access to user data.

Leiber said he isn't aware of any such capability. He cautioned that it would be irresponsible for any technology company employee to make "categorical guarantees about what governments are capable or incapable of in terms of their ability to conduct activities, including hacking on their own initiative."

Canada can do more to protect data, expert says

Sam Andrey is the managing director of The Dais, a public policy and leadership think tank at Toronto Metropolitan University which focuses in part on technology and democracy.

He said the data TikTok collects includes locations, message content and other sensitive information like contact lists. He said other social media giants like Facebook and Instagram, which are based in the U.S., collect similar data. 

The issue, Andrey said, is Canada's fraught relationship with China versus its long-standing connection to the U.S. "We're an ally with one and not with the other," he added.

A man with brown hair and a brown beard wearing glasses and a light blue shirt standing in front of a tree
Sam Andrey is the managing director of the Dais at Toronto Metropolitan University. (Toronto Metropolitan University)

Andrey called for stronger privacy law in Canada, including regulations on who governs Canadians' sensitive personal data in the rest of the world.

TikTok says it's been threatened with a complete ban by the U.S. government if its Chinese owners do not divest their shares in the app. Should such a divestment happen, Andrey said, it would be "incumbent on the Canadian government to try to tag along" with the idea.

But Andrey added he isn't sure if a complete ban on TikTok is needed. He said Ottawa's ban on using the app on government phones is an important signal of the potential risk, but there can still be personal discretion.

"I think people can make up their own minds about the risks," he said.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said David Lieber is the head of TikTok's privacy policy for the Americas. In fact, he is the head of TikTok's privacy public policy for the Americas.
    Oct 18, 2023 9:36 PM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Benjamin Lopez Steven is a reporter and part-time writer for CBC News Network. He's also a recent journalism graduate from Carleton University. You can reach him at benjamin.steven@cbc.ca or find him on Twitter at @bensteven_s.

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