By Caitlin Yilek
The use of virtual private networks (VPN) is projected to grow in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order effectively banning the Chinese-owned apps TikTok and WeChat.
The federal government is reacting to reports that the apps harvest vast amounts of personal information from Americans’ mobile devices in the background while they run.
Network services known as VPNs allow users to mask their locations, permitting them to appear to be in other parts of the world. Customers are expected to use them more and more to circumvent any internet firewalls preventing the use of TikTok, an app used to create short viral videos, and the messaging and payment app WeChat.
A TikTok user is pictured holding a mobile smartphone. TikTok is a popular mobile app, owned by a Chinese company, designed to create short viral videos. (Zenger News)
“We expect to see an increase in our U.S. numbers in the days leading to the ban,” said George Onofrievici, a mobile app product manager at CyberGhost.
But the ability to get around the restrictions depends on the technical specifications of the ban, he said.
ExpressVPN saw an increase in traffic to its website in several countries after TikTok-related announcements.
There was a 10 percent increase in web traffic to ExpressVPN’s website from the previous week after Trump announced a possible U.S. ban of TikTok on July 31, the company’s communications manager Fangying Ang said.
The company saw a 19 percent spike compared to the prior week when Japan announced a potential ban the week of July 28, she said. In Australia, which is also weighing a ban, early July saw a 41 percent increase.
ExpressVPN recorded a 22 percent increase in web traffic in India after the country banned TikTok and dozens of other Chinese apps, and a 10 percent bump in Hong Kong after TikTok ceased operating there the week of July 6, Ang said.
“We are seeing an increasing number of governments around the world attempting to control the information their citizens can access,” said Harold Li, vice president of ExpressVPN.
“For this reason, VPNs are used to access blocked sites and services by many worldwide,” Li said. “In the case of TikTok in the U.S., we don’t know how a potential ban may be enforced yet, and it may require users to jump through other hoops on top of using a VPN, such as removing their local SIM card.”
Surfshark also expects to see a rise in VPN use.
“More often than not, such governmental initiatives as banning certain popular apps impact VPNs’ usage,” said Gabrielle Racai, communications manager at Surfshark. “Historically speaking, we’ve seen immediate users’ responses, when China decided to pass the controversial Hong Kong security law, or India’s government decided to ban 59 apps, including TikTok. In the case of the U.S. we expect to see uptake in VPNs if ban of TikTok and other Chinese apps will be enforced.”
Trump issued two executive orders Thursday prohibiting transactions between people in the U.S. and TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance. The same restrictions will apply to WeChat and its owner, Tencent Holdings. The orders take effect Sept. 20.
“Like TikTok, WeChat automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users,” Trump’s order on WeChat said. “This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information.”
TikTok expressed shock over Trump’s order, saying it was issued “without any due process” and threatening legal action.
CyberGhost is among the companies that offer Virtual Private Networks, which allow Internet users to circumvent firewalls by appearing to be in other countries. This screen-grab was captured on August 7, 2020
“We have made clear that TikTok has never shared user data with the Chinese government, nor censored content at its request,” the company said in a statement Friday.
Trump’s order puts pressure on Microsoft to make a deal sooner rather than later to acquire TikTok’s U.S. operations. The U.S. tech company said Sunday it was in talks to buy TikTok.
“Microsoft fully appreciates the importance of addressing the president’s concerns. It is committed to acquiring TikTok subject to a complete security review and providing proper economic benefits to the United States, including the United States Treasury,” Microsoft said in a statement.
Microsoft said it would complete any negotiations before Sept. 15., and would keep the president informed.
The U.S. Senate also unanimously passed a bill to ban TikTok on government-issued devices, weeks after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a similar measure.