New to TikTok: Trump's looming ban prompts some to download the app

People who downloaded TikTok for the first time say it's an act of protest. New downloads of TikTok will be barred on Sunday.

Queenie Wong Former Senior Writer
Queenie Wong was a senior writer for CNET News, focusing on social media companies including Facebook's parent company Meta, Twitter and TikTok. Before joining CNET, she worked for The Mercury News in San Jose and the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. A native of Southern California, she took her first journalism class in middle school.
Expertise I've been writing about social media since 2015 but have previously covered politics, crime and education. I also have a degree in studio art. Credentials
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Queenie Wong
4 min read

TikTok has more than 100 million users in the US.

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Luna Flesher had considered downloading TikTok but worried about the security of the short-form video app. Plus, the 46-year-old thought the app, famous for dance-offs and lip-syncing, was for teens.

On Friday, Flesher pushed those concerns aside and started using TikTok for the first time after news broke that the Trump administration planned to bar new downloads of the app on midnight Sunday. 

"If someone threatens to take away something from us that we feel we have a freedom to do, we do have a tendency to latch onto it and be motivated to protect that freedom," said Flesher, a freelance writer in Washington state. "I am recognizing that in my own behavior." 

As the Trump administration moves forward with plans to restrict TikTok, people like Flesher are downloading the short-form video app in protest or as a precaution in case the app does get banned. They're also encouraging others to do the same. Many people spoke out on Twitter, where tweets about the potential ban trended on the social media site on Friday.

Unless a deal that satisfies the US government is struck, TikTok users won't be able to update versions of the app they've already downloaded, after Sunday. That could leave the app's more than 100 million American users without access to security patches or improvements to the service going forward. New downloads of Chinese social media app WeChat are also set to be barred on Sunday.

There were roughly 247,000 downloads of TikTok in the US on Friday, up 12% from Thursday, according to preliminary estimates by app analytics firm Sensor Tower. TikTok US installs on Friday were down slightly by 3% week-over-week. WeChat had 10,000 US installs on Friday, up 150% from Thursday and 233% week-over-week. It was the most US downloads in a day that WeChat has seen since Oct. 7, 2019, according to Sensor Tower.

The Trump administration has targeted TikTok because Chinese tech company ByteDance owns the app. US officials have raised concerns that the Chinese government could use TikTok to spy on federal employees and other US citizens. The administration has issued two executive orders impacting the app, including one on Aug. 14 that requires ByteDance to sell its US operations by Nov. 12. After that date, the US government plans to ban TikTok entirely. 

The Trump administration is considering a proposal from ByteDance and Oracle, a major US tech company, designed to address the security concerns. On Friday, Trump said a deal could be done "very, very quickly" though he stipulated the US has to have "total security from China." 

TikTok has said it would never turn over US user data to the Chinese government even if it were asked to do so. US user data is also stored in the US and Singapore, according to the company.

Read more: Everything you need to know about the TikTok saga

Some security experts say the Trump administration's move against TikTok is more about politics than security. During an election year, Trump wants to show he's tough on China and he's also blamed the country for the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, said Rahul Telang, an information systems professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College.

"I don't particularly think that downloading TikTok will cause a significant or more harm to users than average," he said. 

Other social media apps, including Facebook and its photo-service Instagram, collect a trove of data about their users to target them with ads, he said. Intelligence agencies told the White House that Chinese authorities could collect data through TikTok, but there's no evidence they've done so, The New York Times reported. The Wall Street Journal found that TikTok's Android app collected device identifiers known as MAC addresses, but the practice ended in November. The Washington Post concluded that TikTok doesn't appear to gather more data than Facebook. 

Theresa Payton, former White House chief information officer, who now leads cybersecurity consultancy Fortalice Solutions, said anyone who downloads TikTok or WeChat should get familiar with the privacy and security settings on both apps. 

"Do what you think is right for you, but don't just download the app and then not pay attention to the potential privacy and security concerns," said Payton.

Kurt Opsahl, general counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that preventing security updates on TikTok does pose some risks, although nothing will change unless a vulnerability is detected.

Some people on Twitter suggested that TikTok users could tap a virtual private network (VPN) to hide their location and bypass the potential TikTok ban. An anonymous parody account that poses as the cow of US Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican from California, told more than 760,200 followers to set their VPN to Canada.

Opsahl said "it remains to be seen if a VPN will help" and that there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the upcoming TikTok restrictions. "We don't know if Apple and Google will take down the app entirely, only for the US, or if they will challenge the order. But in some scenarios, like with the Great Firewall of China, a VPN can help get around online censorship," he said.

Arlesia McGowan, who rejoined TikTok on Friday, said she'd use a VPN if she really needed it to bypass a ban.

The 23-year-old first downloaded TikTok in the summer to follow her sister on the app but deleted it after about a month because she didn't use it that much. 

When she heard that Trump was planning to bar new downloads of TikTok on Sunday, she decided to download the app again in case she needed it for work. McGowan interns at a public relations firm in New York and she recalled one of her clients mentioning she was on TikTok.

"Our generation has gotten so used to having things at our fingertips and being comfortable in knowing that we can get it whenever we want, especially an app," McGowan said.