TikTok’s American fans look to virtual private networks to circumvent Trump’s app purge
Casey Neistat sits in his Tesla Model 3, leans against his white leather upholstery and holds up his phone. “When an app is banned in the US, it means you cannot access it from a US IP address,” he says, looking into the camera. “With NordVPN, you choose whatever country in the world you want your IP address to be from and then, voila, access to TikTok.”
A prolific YouTuber, Neistat, 39, was admittedly paid to name drop the Finnish VPN in a video. But it reveals how virtual private networks have entered the zeitgeist.
Immediately after July 31, when Donald Trump signed an executive order that could result in TikTok – popularised by influencers like Loren Gray, inset – vanishing from phones in the US next month, Google searches for VPNs in the US jumped 29pc, followed by a sustained 10pc increase. Details are now being shared by users on TikTok how to download VPNs, in anticipation of a ban.
“While there’s a certain irony to US TikTok users relying on Chineseowned apps to circumvent any ban, many of these VPN apps are highly flawed from a privacy perspective and are potentially much more risky than TikTok,” says Simon Migliano, head of research at Top10VPN, an independent British review website. China requires all citizens and businesses to hand store encryption keys so they can be handed over to the government if required. This means there is a risk that businesses with directors who can access data or store data in Hong Kong or China – NordVPN is not among them – are legally required to comply with government requests. But it is not just about data sovereignty.
Many VPNs store data – like their encryption keys or app infrastructure – in Hong Kong, where it has long been considered a safe harbour for Chinese internet traffic, remaining just outside of the Great Firewall. Hong Kong citizens have not been exposed to censored news, information or social media, unlike those in the mainland, even though strictly speaking, it was under China’s rules.
But this year Beijing has made clear its intentions to bring Hong Kong under its wing, enforcing rules that preside over the mainland and bringing in a new security law which may mean China will now begin asking for the encryption keys or data logs from a Hong Kong VPN, if they keep them.
VPNs or virtual private networks, act as an encrypted tunnel between the user’s device and the internet, working as a conduit of data. They are increasingly used by corporations who ask their employees to log on to a secured network when working remotely and can be helpful when using public Wi-Fi to stop anyone from intercepting internet traffic. Most commonly for Britons, VPNs are often used to stream football matches or shows on BBC iPlayer or Channel 4 from countries where those services are blocked.
They are banned in China, although the government turns a blind eye to some use of VPNs. In countries where press and internet freedom is limited, VPNs are a critical means of communication with the outside world. Not all VPNs are created equal, and dependent on their competency, some may be leaking internet browsing data.
Many VPN providers have got away with shoddy workmanship that leads to leaks, and extensive data collection. In some cases it has taken a cyber attack and data breach to reveal exactly how much information the providers collect.
Even hugely trusted NordVPN, Neistat’s favourite, admitted it was hacked last year, but denied that browsing logs were stolen.
“I wouldn’t use a VPN, regardless of where its ownership resides, if I didn’t have some confidence in the integrity and technical ability of the owners of the app or the software,” says Andrew Grotto, director of the Cyber Policy Centre’s Programme on Geopolitics, Technology and Governance at Stanford University.
Many young people will be on the hunt for the cheapest, or free, services, but that is the biggest red flag, Grotto says. “You get what you pay for and whenever there is a ‘free’ app it always pays to think through ‘why am I getting this for free and how are the developers making money?’ ”