Vancouver city hall is taking its time to ban the WeChat app from civic devices.
Associate director of communications Angela MacKenzie said a review of the Technology Acceptable Use policy is over and “we will follow the lead of the Government of Canada regarding WeChat and Kaspersky apps for city-issued mobile devices. This will take effect as of next week.”
Pressed further, MacKenzie said the deadline is Nov. 15 — more than two weeks after Treasury Board president Anita Anand’s Oct. 30 order to delete the Chinese social media, messaging and payment app and Russian anti-virus programs from federal devices over privacy and security concerns.
“Our analysis has shown that we have approximately 40 installs of WeChat and zero installs of Kaspersky app,” MacKenzie said. She refused to explain why it is taking so long to deal with so few devices.
This is not the first time that Vancouver city hall has taken its time to follow the lead of the federal government on a cybersecurity issue.
After Anand’s predecessor, Mona Fortier, announced a ban on the TikTok video app on Feb. 27, Vancouver city hall took more than two weeks to do the same. Of the 2,700 devices in its fleet, city hall counted 132 iPhones that contained TikTok.
The city’s chief technology officer Tadhg Healy initially expressed reluctance, even after the NDP’s Citizens’ Services Minister Lisa Beare quickly followed the federal lead. The city’s decision to remove TikTok and block further downloads was finally announced March 14.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Citizens’ Services said that Kaspersky is not on any B.C. government-managed device and that WeChat has not been permitted on such devices for nearly four years.
A reporter asked for a copy of the directive to delete WeChat. But a prepared statement, sent by public affairs officer Farah Tarannum, said employees were told verbally how to delete the app after the chief information security officer hosted a March 16, 2020 conference call for security leads.
“The decision to ban the application was made out of an abundance of caution as an operational security decision. It was not the result of an actual or suspected privacy breach,”according to the ministry statement, which said there was a “low number” of devices containing WeChat.
One of Canada’s top professors on data mining and cybersecurity said the federal ban was overdue. Benjamin Fung of McGill University’s School of Information Studies said WeChat is prone to Chinese Communist Party censorship and propaganda. The risk to users is threefold: privacy, security and trust. The app requests access to all files on a device, the camera and microphone, and nearby devices.
“No matter if it is within China or outside of China, it is clear that the Chinese government and the Tencent company are monitoring all the communications,” Fung said.
The Communications Security Establishment’s 2023-2024 National Cyber Threat Assessment warned that WeChat “has been used to spread misinformation, disinformation and malinformation and propaganda specific to the Chinese diaspora.” WeChat has figured in recent Global Affairs Canada warnings about foreign interference and targeting of politicians. It was also used during the 2021 federal election to spread disinformation to help defeat Steveston-Richmond East Conservative Kenny Chiu.
The B.C. government’s WeChat account was originally registered for personal use by Bruce Ralston when he was Minister of Jobs, Trade and Technology in 2018, the same year that Premier John Horgan led a trade mission to China. Horgan announced a tourism promotion agreement with WeChat when he met with executives from its parent company Tencent.
Ralston, the NDP government’s liaison to the B.C. diplomatic corps, transferred the account to the government in 2020 and it is managed by contractor Fan Rong Marketing Ltd.
Despite banning WeChat on government devices, the ministry considers WeChat to be “an important tool to share information about government programs, services, and information with people in their preferred language.”
In mid-August, the B.C. government announced it had opened an account on the Weibo platform, to post messages in Chinese about public safety, emergency preparedness, cost of living, housing, education, health care and justice services. Third-party contractor Catalyst Agents was hired for the job.