Canada cautioned to avoid Zoom after company suspends accounts on China's request

Canadian observers are again cautioning against the use of the now-ubiquitous Zoom Video Communications Inc. application after the San-Jose-based company admitted to shutting down the accounts of human-rights activists at Beijing’s behest.

The reactions come after Humanitarian China, a group protesting Beijing’s continued censorship of the events around the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, said on Wednesday their Zoom accounts were suspended earlier this week after an online commemoration of the crackdown’s anniversary.

“On June 7th, around 10 p.m. EST, the ZOOM account used for this conference displayed a message that it had been shut down, and repeated logins failed,” a release from Humanitarian China said. “ZOOM has not responded to our requests for an explanation... We are outraged by this act from ZOOM, a U.S company.”

Ken Tung, a public-affairs commentator with Chinese-language Fairchild Radio's "News-Talk" program and the former chair of immigrant-services non-profit SUCCESS, said the fact that a company that provides the near-essential service of video conferencing would put a politically driven interest of a foreign state government on the forefront should be a big concern for Canadians as well as businesses in B.C.

"I would ask the question, 'How much can you trust this enterprise?'" Tung said, noting the lack of transparency about Zoom's shareholders and server locations. "... As a business, you will never know how sensitive your information is until it is stolen and used by your competitor. We have to realize that fact."

University of Ottawa scholar Margaret McCuaig-Johnston – an expert with multiple decades of experience in Canada’s tech partnerships with China since the 1970s – said many western governments (including those in Canada) have already instructed public officials to avoid Zoom except for meetings that are already public in nature. McCuaig-Johnston added she is hopeful that Canadian companies and consumers will now also start finding alternatives to Zoom given the news.

“We’ve known for months that Zoom has security problems,” she said. “The fact that the data of Zoom meetings goes through China is a big factor... The other problem is that [Zoom] is also extremely hackable, leading to the new expression of being ‘Zoom-bombed’ in a meeting.”

In a later response to press, Zoom said it has re-activated the affected accounts, but added the company and meeting participants “are required to comply with their respective local laws” given the fact that meetings may take place across multiple countries. The Humanitarian China meeting reportedly included a number of people calling in from China, reports said.

Zoom use has skyrocketed during the COVID pandemic as social distancing forced almost all businesses and institutions to move gatherings online, but McCuaig-Johnston said there are safer alternatives – including Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams and Crowdcast.

“The policy of [Beijing] now seems to be that if one or more people in China are viewing the meeting on Zoom, the government has the right to shut down the feed – even if the meeting is hosted from somewhere else in the world,” she said. “The extraterritoriality of China’s policy should be unacceptable to other governments.”

Tung agreed, adding that he himself switched from Zoom to other platforms for fear of endangering family and friends he contacts in Hong Kong and Macau using video conferencing.

"Most people nowadays in business will need to use video-conferencing tools," he said. "My advice is to pick a reliable one, especially in business."