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Can you protect your privacy by using a VPN to access TikTok or WeChat?

Can you protect your privacy by using a VPN to access TikTok or WeChat?

Oct 6, 2020

TikTok, which lets people create and share short videos, is one of the most popular social media apps in the world. In less than four years, it has rocketed to prominence, and is now one of the most downloaded apps in the world. Uniquely, TikTok, with its origins in China, has managed to conquer the United States market, where it counts 100 million active users.

Another hugely successful Chinese app, WeChat, lets people do everything from chat to online purchases. And while it is most popular in the domestic Chinese market -- where nearly a billion people use it regularly -- it is also a key tool for cross-border business and a tool for overseas Chinese to stay in touch with friends and family back home.

Now, the U.S. administration is seeking to bar both apps, citing concerns around data privacy and possible overseas surveillance. While the government's orders have been temporarily halted in the courts, uncertainty looms over the future of the two Chinese unicorns. Because of this, some people in the U.S. have begun looking to a solution usually associated with countries that censor the Internet. They are turning to VPNs to circumvent the potential U.S. regulations and use TikTok and WeChat, even if it goes against their government's wishes.

Freedom and privacy are common rationales for this end-run around government intervention. At first blush, invoking such principles makes sense. After all, why should someone be prevented from having harmless fun on TikTok, or chatting with their overseas friends and relatives on WeChat, because of a geopolitical feud? Isn't using a VPN the right thing to do, given what we know about the widespread government surveillance of Internet users? Isn't accessing these services through a VPN striking a blow for freedom, openness, and cooperation?

Each individual Internet user can make their own decision about these questions. But it's important to understand exactly what you're doing when you access TikTok or WeChat through a VPN. Government surveillance is certainly real, and great power rivalry has a long history of ensnaring people's ordinary, day-to-day activities. But the apps in question -- like so many digital behemoths around the world -- imperil privacy themselves through their data collection practices. And simply using a VPN won't keep you safe.

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What TikTok and WeChat know about you

TikTok collects an enormous amount of information about its users, beyond that required to operate the service. It automatically logs your location, your IP address, and the type of device used to access the app, as well as browsing and search history and the content of messages exchanged on the platform. In addition, the app asks users for "opt-in" permission to collect additional information. This additional tracking includes your age, phone number, contacts, and payment information. Finally, TikTok uses powerful algorithms -- so powerful they have been the subject of tense international negotiations -- to tailor content and search results based on its users' habits and histories. The app uses the vast amounts of data it collects to curate the feeds it generates.

While WeChat is in many ways quite different from TikTok, it too is a large-scale harvester of data. While the app's privacy practices are opaque, it's generally understood that -- like most apps -- it collects information about its users' locations, operating systems, and devices. In addition, because it is a messaging app, it is able to access people's contacts as well as the contents of their messages. Finally, WeChat is a payments platform, used in China the same way Apple Pay is in the U.S. As such, it has access to the financial information of anyone who uses it to make purchases.

What a VPN does, and doesn't, protect us from

Does using a VPN offer protection from TikTok and WeChat's mass data collection? The answer is, unfortunately, probably not.

VPNs can go a long way toward protecting online privacy if we're using a browser to access the Internet. For this reason, anyone seeking to maintain privacy while using a social network -- whether it's TikTok, Facebook, or something else -- should access them through a browser using a VPN. When we do this, our traffic is routed through an encrypted server, making it difficult for third parties -- including the social networks we use -- to see who we are or what we're doing.

To maintain privacy when using an app like TikTok or WeChat, avoid downloading and using these networks' proprietary apps, which can collect information regardless of whether you use a VPN. For stronger privacy, configure multiple hops on Orchid to make it more difficult for anyone to piece together your online activity.

There is, then, a way to use social media with a VPN and maintain a high degree of privacy. But the truth is most people access platforms like TikTok and WeChat through their apps, not through browsers. And in this situation, a VPN won't help. Those thinking about using a VPN to skirt a potential U.S. ban of TikTok and WeChat may find they are able to access those services -- but their privacy will still be at risk. Of course, the decision lies with each individual, and some may decide that the entertainment value or the social necessity outweighs the danger. But no one should be under the illusion that using a VPN to access the TikTok app is striking a blow for freedom and privacy.

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