UPDATED: Norway’s young justice minister, Emilie Enger Mehl, has finally responded to criticism over her presence on the social media platform TikTok, and for installing it on her government mobile telephone. Like other platforms, TikTok demands lots of information about its users, and is also owned by a Chinese company, raising security concerns.
Newspaper Dagbladet first started asking questions about the photos and reports Mehl posted on TikTok, including an official visit to the Netherlands, her participation in a Pride parade and, not least, any contacts she may have stored on her phone. Mehl didn’t respond until last week, when she admitted to TV2 that she did have TikTok on a government phone, but not any longer.
That set off a barrage of criticism, not least from security experts. They fear sensitive information about Mehl’s movements and government activity could thus have reached Chinese authorities, a fear that also may have reached Mehl because she removed the app from her government phone after just a month last fall, moving it over to another phone dedicated to social media use. Aftenposten commentator Per Kristian Bjørkeng thinks that suggests she realized there were security concerns and “indirectly admitted” that installing TikTok on a government phone was a mistake.
Norway’s own State Auditor General, meanwhile, has recently scolded Mehl’s ministry, which is responsible for digital security in the civilian sector. The auditors announced just last week that the ministry in charge of police, the courts, immigration and national preparedness isn’t doing a good enough job of meeting threats to digital security or coordinating digital defense.
Mehl told TV2 that she had consulted others in her ministry before she installed TikTok on her so-called “non-classified government phone.” Bjørkeng doesn’t think that should reassure anyone, on the contrary: Security alarms should have rung, he wrote.
Late last week, former Prime Minister Erna Solberg (a social media fan who nonetheless advised government colleagues against installing TikTok during her term in office) accused Mehl of deceiving Parliament. Mehl, Solberg noted, hadn’t answered MPs’ questions about whether she had TikTok on her phone, only to later admit to TV2 that she had.
“It’s stupid that a justice minister, who’s responsible for security laws, has installed TikTok on her work phone,” Solberg told Norwegian Broadcasging (NRK). “Everyone can make mistakes, but the mistake she made in addition to that was to try to keep that from Parliament.” Solberg also experienced ministerial phone misuse during her administration, when one of her justice ministers from the Progress Party, Per Sandberg, took a government phone with him on a trip to China and Iran. He later had to resign.
This week Mehl was called in to Parliament’s weekly session that questions ministers, and she admitted she “could have been more open earlier” about her TikTok use. She claimed, though, that she was “too careful” about revealing details around her social media use and security routines, and thus “created uncertainty.” She stressed that she’d installed TikTok on a phone that’s never used for communication of classified information.
Current Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre has been standing by Mehl, telling NRK that her case “is now well-known and that’s what’s important.” He said she had followed the advice she received from within the ministry “and I think she has done that in a responsible manner.”
Opposition politicians disagree and support Solberg’s view that Mehl has put national security at risk. Grude Almeland of the Liberal Party also told Dagbladet that he thinks Mehl has not paid enough respect to Parliament.
On Monday Mehl, now age 29, tried again to defend herself, claiming that she did not deceive Parlament and that she still thinks it’s important to have a presence on social media that appeals to children and youth. Her posts included various video of her showing off new search and rescue helicopters, getting ready for another high-level meeting, meeting with her Dutch counterpart and posing by her minister’s seat in Parliament.
Mehl claims she sent a written answer to Parliament’s questions about her TikTok use before she answered TV2‘s questions. “I have tried to be as open and honest about this matter as possible,” Mehl told NRK on Monday. She said she was also ready to appear at this week’s question hour in Parliament, and stressed she will answer any further questions that other MPs may have.
She noted, meanwhile, that TikTok is among the most-used social media platform’s in Norway, second only to Snapchat for those aged 18-29 years. “It’s a place where young people are, and therefore I think it’s also important that serious players (presumably like herself) are there, too,” Mehl told NRK.