TikTok’s Amer­i­can fans look to vir­tual pri­vate net­works to cir­cum­vent Trump’s app purge

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Technology Intelligen­ce - By Margi Mur­phy in San Fran­cisco

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?’ ”

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