TikTok’s fate in the U.S. hangs in the balance. What would a sale mean?

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House poised to pass TikTok crackdown

House poised to pass bill that could ban TikTok 02:05

TikTok could soon be inaccessible to its more than a hundred million users in the U.S., after the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday voted to pass a law forcing the app to be sold by its Chinese parent company or face a stateside ban. 

Much like other social media apps, including those owned by U.S. companies, concerns abound over the vast amount of personal user data collected by TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance, posing a national security threat. 

Under the proposed legislation, ByteDance would have six months to divest TikTok or face a nationwide ban. 

Would a sale solve the issue? Not entirely, but it would mark a step in the right direction, according to cybersecurity experts.

“It would only solve the first problem, which is the accessibility of Americans’ data to Chinese authorities,” Ivan Tsarynny, a cybersecurity expert who testified before the House Committee to recommend that TikTok either be sold or banned in the U.S., told CBS MoneyWatch.

Still, a new owner of TikTok could illegally transfer users’ data to the Chinese government, according to Tsarynny.

“We’d have to make sure every person who has access to TikTok’s data on Americans is accessing it for the right reasons, and is not part of a covert operation,” he said. 

Engineers, data scientists and other workers at a hypothetical American parent company with direct access to users’ data would have to be rigorously vetted “to ensure they are using the data for legitimate reasons and not stealing it and siphoning it back to China,” he said.

Can Congress ban TikTok? Legal expert weighs in 03:37

It’s well known that even U.S.-owned social media companies, which are only loosely regulated, pose security risks. 

“Any company that collects this amount of sensitive, personal information from this many Americans is going to pose data privacy and security risks. So there are still many other avenues for bad actors and foreign governments to access this info,” said Caitlin Chin-Rothmann, a researcher of the impact of technology on geopolitics and society at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

“A sale would solve the question of ownership, but wouldn’t necessarily make personal information any safer,” she added. 

In the event that ByteDance sells TikTok, U.S. users could seamlessly continue to use the app. “It could be very non-intrusive, and users may not even notice that ownership of the company has changed,” Tsarynny said. “And in the mid to long-term, a sale has a very strong possibility of eliminating China as a threat.”

Montana is banning TikTok, but how does the state plan to enforce it? 04:07

A deal to sell TikTok could be challenging, according to experts. 

“Any company that buys TikTok is going to have to be very well-resourced, very wealthy, and will need a strategic interest in purchasing TikTok without raising antitrust concerns around mergers and acquisitions, Chin-Rothmann said. “There’s a good chance a deal wouldn’t go through.”

President Biden has said he will sign the bill if it passes the Senate, but it remains to be seen whether a nationwide ban of the hugely popular app — if it came to that — would be possible. Previous efforts to do so have been blocked by legal challenges and concerns over free speech. 

Megan Cerullo

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Megan Cerullo is a New York-based reporter for CBS MoneyWatch covering small business, workplace, health care, consumer spending and personal finance topics. She regularly appears on CBS News Streaming to discuss her reporting.

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