AUSTIN, Texas — On Tuesday morning, the University of Texas at Austin announced it has banned TikTok on wired and Wi-Fi networks on campus due to security concerns. Shortly after, Texas A&M University followed suit.
All around the UT campus, cellphones are glued to students' hands. Several students told KVUE that they spend a good amount of time on TikTok.
"Probably about a couple of hours a day for sure," UT junior Blake Tyler said.
"In high school, a lot," Gaytri Vasal said. "Now, probably like five hours a week."
Now, TikTok will be more challenging to access on the Forty Acres. In an email to students, a UT spokesperson wrote, "The University of Texas at Austin is taking steps to comply with Gov. Greg Abbott's Dec. 7 directive to all state agencies to eliminate the cybersecurity risks posed by TikTok."
"I had gone to bed scrolling on TikTok previously, so it was kind of like a wake-up call," said Naziya Ahmed, a UT senior. "I understand why it was done, but I didn't really expect that to happen."
TikTok is based in China, owned by company Bytedance. In December, Gov. Greg Abbott prohibited state employees from using TikTok on government-issued devices, including state universities.
State and federal leaders say the app 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.
"Universities are a prime target of collection by Chinese nation-state actors," said Darren Mott, a former FBI agent and cyber security expert. "In other words, they are looking for research that they can steal."
Mott said TikTok only discloses a little of what it tracks. He said there are at least 13 trackers that TikTok won't say how they are used.
He said, yes, U.S. apps track you, but it's not a secret.
"I've heard before is, 'Well, Facebook does this and Instagram does this and all these things,'" Mott said. "Sure, they have trackers that do it. Those trackers are largely for advertising purposes. We don't know what China's trackers are doing."
Mott said your risk for espionage depends on your career.
"If you're just doing social media influencing and you're showing cooking, your risk is low, but if you work for the government and you're using TikTok, that is problematic because you are giving them all sorts of information to target you elsewhere," Mott said.
While UT students are still finalizing careers, the risks are on their minds.
"I am a little bit concerned, but I think it's been so ingrained in our lives, it's difficult to kind of move away from it, especially since quarantine happened," Vasal said.
At least 30 other states have limited TikTok access on government devices. Mott said he doesn't expect TikTok to be banned for good, but he expects similar moves from places like hospitals, biomedical firms or anywhere cutting-edge technology is created.
Below is the email UT students received from the university:
The University of Texas at Austin is taking steps to comply with Governor Greg Abbott’s Dec. 7 directive to all state agencies to eliminate the cybersecurity risks posed by TikTok. The federal government recognizes the video-sharing mobile application as a national security threat. Several federal agencies and states have already prohibited its use on their government networks and government-issued devices.
Recently, UT Austin began the process of removing TikTok from all government-issued devices, including university-issued cell phones, laptops, tablets and desktop computers. Today, the university blocked TikTok access on our networks. You are no longer able to access TikTok on any device if you are connected to the university via its wired or WIFI networks. For common technical questions, contact IT@UT.
The university is taking these important steps to eliminate risks to information contained in the university’s network and to our critical infrastructure. As outlined in the governor’s directive, 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.
Advisor to the President for Technology Strategy