“The university is taking these important steps to eliminate risks to information contained in the university’s network and to our critical infrastructure,” Neyland wrote. He added, “TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices … and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.”
The University of Texas at Austin is one of several campuses across the country that have restricted TikTok use; in late December, the app was also banned from all devices managed by the U.S. House of Representatives, and several states have additionally banned it from government-issued devices.
TikTok has repeatedly asserted that it does not share information with the Chinese government and that it does not store the data of American users in China, but U.S. lawmakers and cybersecurity experts have widely remained skeptical, fearing that Beijing could compel the company to share data.
“There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about data privacy and TikTok. It’s not paranoia,” said Karen North, a professor of digital and social media at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. 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, she said.
“The problem is that part of this is speculation, and part of it is a recognized pattern of data collection from a company that resides in a country where data collection is the norm rather than a sanctioned activity,” she added. “Pretty much everybody believes that TikTok is collecting data, all the time.”
Universities have troves of sensitive information to protect, including medical records, academic records and disciplinary reports. 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.
“They’re not saying you can’t use TikTok on campus. They’re saying you cannot use TikTok while logged into our WiFi,” North said.
Kate Biberdorf, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has garnered more than 2.6 million followers sharing science experiments on TikTok, said that she’s against the ban and that she has still been able to access the app using campus WiFi.
“Our rights are slowly being chipped away in Texas, and this recent ban feels like another push in the wrong direction,” she said in an email.
“My students are hilarious, and they are just going to use their data to post TikToks,” she added. “You can’t stop Gen Z!”