The TikTok logo is displayed in front of the offices of the TikTok social media app company in Culver City, California on March 16, 2023.
Patrick T Fallon | AFP | Getty Images
TikTok is threatened with a ban in the USA if the Chinese parent company ByteDance does not sell its stake. Millions of Americans who use the popular video app are wondering what this means to them.
Some fans of the service may turn to virtual private networks (VPNs) to try to connect to TikTok should a ban take place, a workaround that can make it seem like their internet connection is coming from another country. But this loophole might not be that easy to exploit.
It’s not a problem just yet, as there are still a few ways to bypass a TikTok ban or access it legally in the US. Here are the main things to consider.
What a ban or forced sale could look like
The United States Committee on Foreign Investments (CFIUS) is the interagency body that assesses national security concerns surrounding the app to determine how to minimize risk by continuing to operate it domestically. The group may recommend President Joe Biden to reverse ByteDance’s 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly, a precursor to TikTok, and force a sale of those assets.
TikTok has recommended a mitigation plan as an alternative to a forced sale. But that’s a long-term solution, as CFIUS has already threatened a ban if ByteDance doesn’t sell its stake.
A forced sale would be a complex move, requiring the reversal of a year-long transaction. The Trump administration has walked this path before, to no avail. The Chinese government would likely fight back, but they would have to be careful about their protests because the crux of their argument with the US is that TikTok operates independently.
“That would be part of the calculus and how aggressively China wants to respond,” said Lindsay Gorman, senior fellow for emerging technologies at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy. Gormany previously served as a senior advisor to the Biden White House.
Should the US ban TikTok, the mechanics of what happens from there will become murky. oracle is the cloud hosting service for all TikTok usage on the US internet service providers like Komcast (parent company of NBC Universal) and verizon direct traffic to the end users. And the app stores are controlled by Apple And Google are the top places for consumers to download TikTok app.
Shannon Reaves, a partner in Stroock’s CFIUS compliance group, said no third-party requirement would come from CFIUS, which is solely tasked with evaluating foreign investments.
“As a result of this review, CFIUS will not take any action against third parties not involved in this transaction,” Reaves said. “So your apples and your googles and so on that’s not going to happen.”
The government may need to turn to laws or executive orders to get app distributors, ISPs, and cloud services to block access to TikTok.
While there will likely always be cracks available for exploitation by a subset of computer-savvy users, the typical consumer would have trouble accessing a government-banned service, said Douglas Schmidt, an engineering professor at Vanderbilt.
“There will almost always be ways around this,” Schmidt said. “It would just be a lot harder for the average person to do without having an advanced degree in computer security or something.”
In other words, a VPN won’t suffice, in part because that route would likely still require app store credentials that reveal a user’s location. Gerald Kasulis, a vice president at NordVPN, said there is also technology that detects when a user is trying to access an app with a VPN.
The security concerns
Concerns about the security risk of TikTok can be boiled down to two main issues. The first is who can access US consumer information and the second is who can determine what information reaches US users. Under Chinese law, companies can be required to turn over internal information to the government for alleged national security purposes.
TikTok has attempted to reassure the US government that US user data will be stored outside of China. The company has developed an elaborate plan called Project Texas, which includes reviewing its code in the US and creating a separate board for a domestic subsidiary whose members are subject to US government scrutiny.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, who is due to testify before a US House panel next week, told the Wall Street Journal that Project Texas would do as much as a divestment to address any security concerns.
But sentiment in Washington is not shifting in favor of TikTok, and lawmakers have lost whatever confidence they once had in China and its motives. This problem resurfaced earlier this year when a suspected Chinese spy balloon was spotted flying over a large part of the United States. Biden ordered the military to shoot down the balloon last month.
When it comes to consumer technology, users have no idea what information is getting to the Chinese government. And the US government has a lot to do to clarify what would happen if the app were banned.
“Even for someone who studies this stuff, it’s not easy to separate and unravel all these apps,” Gorman said. “As a society, we have not made the decision that the app stores, the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store, should restrict apps based on the amount of information collected. It cannot be pinned down to an individual and really needs to be addressed by governments.”
While many users think their casual social media use would be of little interest to a foreign government, Schmidt said data can be of surprisingly high value to bad actors.
“Information about your habits and your interests and your interactions and where you go and what you do could be used either for phishing attacks to gain access to more information or for things like blackmail if you do things you may not want others to know about it,” said Schmidt.
It’s uncharted territory for US companies, unlike China, which blocks access to all types of content, including most major US internet services.
“Trying to control access to data is very, very difficult, especially when there’s a suspicion that the people who are doing it have a reason,” Schmidt said. “And they have a strong incentive to collect that information and use it for all sorts of purposes.”
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