By: Hannah Singer ’23
Students and faculty at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin received an email Jan. 17 that stated that, due to cybersecurity concerns, they would no longer be able to access TikTok while connected to university internet servers.
The email to students came from UT Austin technology adviser Jeff Neyland according to The Texas Tribune. “The university is taking these important steps to eliminate risks to information contained in the university’s network and to our critical infrastructure,” read Neyland’s email.
“When I opened the email, the first thing I did was send it to my friends at UT,” said Emma Louviere, a freshman at UT Austin who graduated from Ursuline in 2022. “I think the email brings legitimacy to the problems with TikTok, and the fact that such a large university took such an action makes me question the safety of TikTok.”
Many were surprised by the abruptness of the email, especially because it applied to all public colleges in Texas. However, this plan had been in progress for a while.
On Dec. 7, “Governor Greg Abbott ordered all Texas state agencies to ban the use of TikTok on any government-issued devices as the threat of the Chinese Communist Party gaining access to critical U.S. information and infrastructure continues to grow,” according to the Office of the Texas Governor’s Press Release.
The press release outlined the dangers the popular app poses to the country. “TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices—including when, where, and how they conduct Internet activity—and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government,” stated the release.
“While TikTok has claimed that it stores U.S. data within the U.S., the company admitted in a letter to Congress that China-based employees can have access to U.S. data. It has also been reported that ByteDance planned to use TikTok location information to surveil individual American citizens.”
Governor Abbott’s Dec. 7 plan was sent to state agencies by Jan. 15, and each state is expected to create its own policy regarding TikTok by Feb. 15. The University of Texas System, as well as other public universities, enacted their plans rather quickly.
But is TikTok as dangerous as the Governor’s press release and Neyland’s emails said it is? According to Karen North, a professor of digital and social media at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the answer is yes.
“There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about data privacy and TikTok. It’s not paranoia,” said North. “It’s unclear what data TikTok is accessing on any users’ device, where it’s storing that data and who it’s being shared with.”
“Universities have troves of sensitive information to protect, including medical records, academic records and disciplinary reports,” stated The Washington Post. “The ban prevents users from using TikTok while connected to university networks, but students and faculty can still access the app on their own personal WiFi or by using cellular data on personal devices.”
TikTok disagreed with the University’s banning of the app. The Texas Tribune contacted Jamal Brown, a spokesperson from TikTok. “We’re disappointed that so many states are jumping on the political bandwagon to enact policies that will do nothing to advance cybersecurity in their states and are based on unfounded falsehoods about TikTok,” Brown said.
“We’re especially sorry to see the unintended consequences of these rushed policies beginning to impact universities’ ability to share information, recruit students, and build communities around athletic teams, student groups, campus publications, and more.”
The unintended consequences will certainly unfold in the weeks and months to come. According to The Texas Tribune, “University admissions departments have used it to connect with prospective students, and many athletics departments have used TikTok to promote sporting events and teams.”
“In a lot of my media classes, we utilize all platforms—including Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter—to share media, so I am curious as to how these classes will change without the university’s support of the app,” said Louviere.
Using TikTok on personal devices could be in jeopardy in the future, but as of right now, students can still use their cellular data and surrounding non-University sponsored wireless networks to access the incredibly popular app.