The TikTok logo is shown outside the offices of social media app company TikTok in Culver City, California on March 16, 2023.
Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images
TikTok is at risk of being banned in the US if Chinese parent company ByteDance does not sell its stake. Millions of Americans who use the popular video app are wondering what this means for them.
Some fans of the service may turn to virtual private networks (VPNs) to try to connect to TikTok if a ban occurs, a workaround that can make their internet connection appear to be coming from another country. But this loophole may not be so easy to exploit.
This is not a problem yet, as there are still some ways to avoid TikTok’s ban or be available legally in the US. Here are the main things to consider.
What a foreclosure or forced sale might look like
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) is the interagency body that assesses national security concerns surrounding the app to determine how to minimize risk if it continues to operate in the country. The group may recommend to President Joe Biden that ByteDance’s 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly, TikTok’s predecessor, be reversed, which would result in the sale of those assets.
TikTok has recommended a mitigation plan as an alternative to a forced sale. But it’s a long-term decision, as CFIUS has already threatened a ban if ByteDance doesn’t sell its stake.
A forced sale would be a complicated step, requiring the undoing of a years-old deal. The Trump administration once followed this path without success. The Chinese government is likely to object again, but will have to be careful in its protests, as the core of its argument to the US is that TikTok operates independently.
“That would be part of the calculus and how aggressively China would want to respond,” said Lindsey Gorman, senior fellow for emerging technologies at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Democracy. Gormany previously served as a senior adviser in the Biden White House.
If the US bans TikTok, the mechanics of what happens from there will become murky. Oracle is the cloud hosting service for all TikTok usage on US ISPs like Comcast (the parent company of NBC Universal) and Verizon direct traffic to end users. And app stores controlled by An apple and Google are the main places where users can download the TikTok app.
Shannon Reeves, a partner in Stroock’s CFIUS compliance group, said no third-party requirements would come from CFIUS, which is charged only with evaluating foreign investments.
“There will be no action by CFIUS as a result of this review that will be taken against third parties that are not part of this transaction,” Reeves said. “So your Apples and Googles and so on that it’s not going to happen.”
The government may need to resort to legislation or executive orders to force app distributors, ISPs and cloud services to block access to TikTok.
While there will likely always be cracks that can be exploited by a subset of computer-literate users, the typical user will find it difficult to access a government-banned service, said Douglas Schmidt, a professor of engineering at Vanderbilt.
“There will almost always be ways around that,” Schmidt said. “It would just be a lot harder for the average person to do it without getting an advanced degree in computer security or something.”
In other words, a VPN won’t be enough, in part because going that route would likely require app store credentials that would reveal the user’s location. Gerald Kasoulis, vice president of NordVPN, said there is also technology available to detect when a user is trying to access an app with a VPN.
Concerns surrounding TikTok’s security risk boil down to two main issues. The first is who has access to user information in the US, and the second is who has the ability to determine what information reaches US users. Under Chinese law, companies can be required to hand over inside information to the government for alleged national security purposes.
TikTok has tried to assure 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 a review of its US code and a separate board of directors for a local subsidiary, with members vetted by the US government.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, who is scheduled to testify before a US House panel next week, told The Wall Street Journal that Project Texas would do just as much as a sale to resolve any issues with security.
But the mood in Washington is not in TikTok’s favor, and lawmakers have lost any trust they once had in China and its motives. That issue resurfaced earlier this year when an alleged Chinese spy balloon was spotted flying over much of the U.S. Biden ordered the military to take the balloon down last month.
When it comes to consumer technology, consumers have no idea what information is making its way to the Chinese government. And the US government needs to do a lot of work to make clear what will happen if the app is banned.
“Even for someone who studies these things, it’s not easy to separate and untangle all these applications,” Gorman said. “As a society, we haven’t decided that app stores, the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store, should restrict apps based on the amount of information they collect. It can’t be put on any one person and it really needs to be addressed by governments.”
While many users might think their casual use of social media would be of little interest to a foreign government, Schmidt said the data can be surprisingly valuable to bad actors.
“Information about your habits and your interests and your interactions and where you go and what you do can be used for things like phishing attacks to get access to more information or for things like extortion if you do things I might not want other people to know about it,” Schmidt said.
This is uncharted territory for American companies, unlike China, which blocks access to all kinds of content, including most major American Internet services.
“Trying to control access to data is very, very difficult, especially when there’s a suspicion that the people doing it have a reason to do it,” Schmidt said. “And they are highly incentivized to collect that information and use it for all kinds of purposes.”
Subscribe to CNBC on YouTube.
WATCH: Uncertainty over TikTok’s fate sends rival shares soaring