A Chinese-operated high-altitude balloon was spotted over North American airspace in January. This airspace included Alaska, parts of western Canada such as Yukon and British Columbia, and the United States. On February 4, a week after its spotting, an F-22 US military fighter jet finally shot down the balloon once it was off the coast of South Carolina. 

It’s worth noting, however, that the balloon proved to be a source of confusion for Canadian and American officials, both speculating that the balloon was gathering calls made on military radios. This speculation was fueled by the fact that the balloon had a signals intelligence array, which is an antenna that can hijack communications devices. 

The balloon incident proved to be consequential to the relationships between these countries. This apparent act of espionage led the US and China to immediately break down communications, with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken calling off a diplomatic meeting that was planned to take place in Beijing. It also reinforced the rocky relationship Canada has had with China during recent years and intensified some people’s belief that China has been trying to interfere in Canadian affairs. China has since denied that the balloon was being used for spying and claimed that it was simply a civilian airship that deviated off course. 

In any case, I believe that this balloon has demonstrated why Canada and the United States need to work together and take greater measures to protect their privacy against China. Both the citizenry of Canada and America and their government agencies have been subjected to attack from China over the past decade. With China’s rising status as a global superpower, it is important for Canada and the US to maintain good relationships with China, although the countries need to set strict and clear boundaries for these relationships to be productive and functional. 

China’s privacy breaches and past solutions

China has been invading the privacy of Canadians and Americans for a number of years through various means. The most prominent example of this is TikTok, the popular social media app that the Chinese company ByteDance owns. The app has been collecting vast amounts of personal data from its users, including their location, browsing history, and biometric information. The app has also been accused of sharing its data with the Chinese government. Another major example of a Chinese data breach was in 2015, when Chinese hackers stole sensitive data of millions of US government employees from the Office of Personnel Management. 

China’s aggressive behavior and violation of Canadian and American sovereignty should be treated more seriously. For years, lawmakers in Washington have been urging the American public to recognize these attacks as a cause for greater concern. Proposals for federal privacy legislation have been made in the US in order to safeguard its markets from Chinese companies. Such legislation would provide a defence against malicious cyber activity and modify surveillance procedures to address the concerns of US trading partners.

Next steps for Canada and the US

I think that passing new legislation that addresses these issues would be a great start in protecting American security, and it is in Canada’s best interest to follow suit. Fortunately, the federal government has already started to discuss these measures. For example, former Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole claimed during his 2021 campaign that he would take a tougher stance on China and impose sanctions on Chinese officials. 

However, Canada and the US must proceed with caution. The US and China are the world’s two largest economies, with both countries being major players in global trade. Maintaining close economic ties with China is crucial for American interests, as many American companies rely on Chinese manufacturers and suppliers. Imposing sanctions on China and passing federal privacy legislation could have wide-ranging economic consequences for the US. 

Similarly, Canada’s private sector is heavily dependent on China and taking a tougher stance could potentially break down negotiations between the two countries. Therefore, Canada and America should proceed on this issue with great caution; an economic or political fallout would be devastating to both countries. 

Overall, China’s balloon incident has demonstrated why the US and Canada need to take greater measures to protect their privacy. Passing legislation to counter cyber activity and foreign espionage and imposing sanctions on Chinese officials is a good way to fight against this issue. However, in my view, both North American countries must be careful in the way they undertake these efforts, as China is a major player on the world stage. It is necessary to proceed with great sensitivity in order to ensure that Canadians and Americans receive the protection they need.

Rubin Beshi is a second-year student at Woodsworth College studying political science and English. He is The Varsity’s international affairs columnist.