The Canadian government has announced a ban on the use of the Chinese social media app WeChat and Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky’s suite of apps on all government-issued mobile devices. Citing privacy and security concerns, Canada becomes the latest country to prohibit government employees from using apps linked to adversarial foreign states.
Effective October 30th, WeChat and Kaspersky products have been removed from all government-issued mobile devices. Going forward, downloading these apps will not be possible due to the ban.
In a statement, Canada’s Treasury Board President Anita Anand said the action aims to safeguard sensitive government information networks from being unlawfully accessed. She stated that an urge to protecting privacy and data security led the decision.
The Chief Information Officer of Canada determined that WeChat and Kaspersky pose an unacceptable level of risk due to their data collection methods and practices, which could provide extensive access to users’ devices.
Cyber Espionage Worries Prompt Authorities to Ban WeChat
WeChat is a hugely popular Chinese messaging, social media, and mobile payment app owned by tech giant Tencent. It has over 1 billion monthly active users global. Most of its users are in China but it has a fair share of users around the world. The app has come under increased scrutiny from Western intelligence agencies for its potential to enable cyber espionage and surveillance by the Chinese government.
Under China’s national intelligence laws, companies must assist in intelligence operations when asked, which likely means that they have to share user data with authorities upon request. This presents risks of state-sponsored actors exploiting WeChat to access classified information from foreign governments.
Canadian authorities highlighted that WeChat’s capabilities give the app vast access to a device’s contents if installed on government phones. Earlier this year, Canadian security services uncovered a WeChat-based disinformation operation targeting a Canadian MP.
The dangers of foreign interference via WeChat are considered severe enough that Canada in February banned the use of ByteDance’s TikTok app on government devices as well. TikTok is a Chinese-owned social media platform that has been accused by numerous Western governments of questionable data-sharing practices including the transfer of user information to Beijing. The US military has also banned TikTok for the same reasons.
Russian Ties Justify Kapersky Ban, Canadian Officials Claim
Russia’s Kaspersky Lab is one of the world’s largest cybersecurity companies, providing antivirus and internet security software. But its Russian origins have increasingly led Western nations to view the firm’s software as a potential threat.
The company’s ties to Russia prompted bans and restrictions on Kaspersky products by the U.S. and European governments following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Officials fear that the Kremlin could be leveraging Kaspersky’s databases and extensive knowledge base for cyberattacks, surveillance, or espionage.
Kaspersky denies any secret collaboration with Russia’s government. It moved key infrastructure like customer data storage to Switzerland in a bid to assuage Western security concerns.
But Canada is following the U.S., U.K., Lithuania, and other allies in prohibiting Kaspersky apps on government systems regardless. With Russia being considered an acute cyberwarfare danger currently, the risks are perceived by government officials as too high to be ignored.
Canada Claims to be Aligning With International Stance
Canada’s Anand emphasized that the country continuously monitors cyber threats and will take prompt action when required. The WeChat and Kaspersky bans align with Canada’s international partners, she noted.
The Five Eyes intelligence alliance between Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand are all strengthening the countries’ defenses against Chinese and Russian digital threats.
Canada’s public safety ministry stated that the WeChat and Kaspersky bans are “risk-based” decisions to keep government data secure from being compromised by foreign powers. It discarded that the actions were influenced by a political bias.
However, the move sends significant geopolitical shockwaves considering the already heightened tensions between the West and authoritarian rivals. Canada has taken part with the group of countries that have decisively condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while it has also been pushing back against rising aggressiveness from China worldwide.
WeChat owner Tencent criticized the ban over a lack of evidence, while Kaspersky said it seemed a response to politics rather than the result of a review of its products’ integrity. Nonetheless, Canada claims to be prioritizing national security interests.
For regular consumers, the government noted that choosing apps is a personal decision. The release recommends consumers that they should review cybersecurity guidance before using services like WeChat or Kaspersky’s antivirus tools.
Canada has taken forceful actions recently to curb perceived national security risks posed by Chinese tech firms and Russian cyber espionage. The federal government ordered three Chinese companies in August to divest their stakes in Canadian critical minerals firms on national security grounds.
Canada also pledged more resources this year to counter foreign interference like China’s alleged meddling in its elections. Ongoing Russian-linked cyberattacks led Ottawa to create a new foreign interference adviser role as well.
Banning WeChat and Kaspersky on government phones represents the latest move to shield official data from being accessed and exploited by foreign governments. However, the action has also drawn China’s ire.
Beijing accused Canada of “typically generalization” about Chinese companies and demanded equal treatment for its firms. Canada is unlikely to back down from its stand against apps linked to its geopolitical adversaries.
With espionage and cyber threats increasing, analysts expect further curbs on Chinese and Russian tech used by Canadian officials.