The TikTok logo is displayed outside the offices of social media app company TikTok in Culver City, California on March 16, 2023.

Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

TikTok risks being banned in the United States if Chinese parent company ByteDance does not sell its stake. Millions of Americans who use the popular video app wonder what it means to them.

Some fans of the service may turn to virtual private networks (VPNs) to try to connect to TikTok when banned, a workaround that can make their internet connection appear to be from another country. But this flaw may not be so easy to exploit.

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That’s not a problem yet, because there are still ways to avoid or legally access a TikTok ban in the United States. Here are the key elements under consideration.

What a ban or forced sale might look like

The Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS) is the interagency body that assesses national security issues related to the app to determine how to minimize risks if it continues to operate domestically. The group can recommend President Joe Biden that the 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly by ByteDance, a precursor to TikTok, be reversed, forcing the sale of those assets.

TikTok recommended a mitigation plan as an alternative to a hard sell. But it’s a long-term solution because CFIUS has already threatened a ban if ByteDance doesn’t sell its stake.

A forced sale would be a complex step, requiring the unwinding of a transaction that was several years old. The Trump administration has gone this route once before, to no avail. The Chinese government would likely oppose it again, but it should be careful in its protests because the core of its argument in the US is that TikTok operates independently.

“It would be part of the calculation and the aggressiveness with which China would want to react,” said Lindsay Gorman, Senior Researcher for Emerging Technologies at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy. Gormany was previously a senior White House adviser to Biden.

If the United States bans TikTok, the mechanics of what happens from there becomes murky. Oracle is the cloud hosting service for all TikTok usage in US internet service providers like Comcast (parent company of NBC Universal) and Verizon direct traffic to end users. And app stores controlled by Apple And Google are the main places where consumers can download the TikTok app.

Shannon Reavesa partner in Stroock’s CFIUS compliance group, said any third-party requirements would not come from CFIUS, which is responsible for evaluating foreign investments on its own.

“There will be no CFIUS action as a result of this review that will be taken against third parties who are not part of this transaction,” Reaves said. “So your apples and your Googles and so forth, that won’t happen.”

The government may need to turn to legislation or executive orders to compel app distributors, ISPs and cloud services to block access to TikTok.

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While there will likely always be cracks that can be exploited by a subset of computer-savvy users, the typical consumer would struggle to access a government-banned service, said Douglas Schmidtengineering professor at Vanderbilt.

“There will almost always be ways around it,” Schmidt said. “It would just be a lot harder for the average person to do that without getting an advanced degree in computer security or something.”

In other words, a VPN won’t suffice, in part because going that route would likely still require App Store credentials, which will show a user’s location. Gerald Kasulis, vice president of NordVPN, said there is also technology available to detect when a user tries to access an application with a VPN.

Security concerns

Concerns about TikTok’s security risk boil down to two main issues. The first is who can access US consumer information and the second is who has the ability to determine what information reaches US users. Under Chinese law, companies may be required to hand over internal information to the government for alleged national security purposes.

TikTok has sought to reassure the US government that US user data is stored outside of China. The company has developed an elaborate plan known as Project Texas that includes verification of its code in the United States and a separate board of directors for a national subsidiary, with members vetted by the US government.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, who is due to testify before a US House panel next week, said The Wall Street Journal that Project Texas would do just as much as divestment to address any security issues.

But the mood in Washington is not changing in favor of TikTok, and lawmakers have lost any faith they may have once had in China and its motives. That problem resurfaced earlier this year, when a suspected Chinese spy balloon was spotted flying over a wide swath of the US Biden ordered the military to shoot down the balloon last month.

When it comes to consumer technology, users have no idea what information is reaching the Chinese government. And the US government has a lot of work to do to clarify what would happen if the app were to be banned.

“Even for someone who studies this stuff, it’s not easy to unpin and unravel all these applications,” Gorman said. “As a society, we have not decided that app stores, the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store, should restrict apps based on the amount of information they collect. be put on any individual and it really needs to be addressed by governments.”

While many users may think their casual use of social media would be of little interest to a foreign government, Schmidt said the data can have surprising value for bad actors.

“Having information about your habits, interests, interactions, where you go and what you do could be used for things like phishing attacks to gain access to more information, or for things like blackmail, if you’re doing things that you might not want other people to know about,” Schmidt said.

It’s uncharted territory for US companies, unlike China, which blocks access to all kinds of content, including most major US internet services.

“Trying to control access to data is very, very difficult, especially when you suspect the people doing it have a reason to do it,” Schmidt said. “And they have a strong incentive to collect that information and use it for all sorts of purposes.”

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