Following a directive from Texas Governor Greg Abbott, public universities across Texas have banned students from accessing the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok on school internet networks.
TikTok, which currently has more than 85 million users in the United States, is owned by the Chinese media company ByteDance. ByteDance employs Chinese Communist Party members and has a subsidiary partially owned by the country’s communist party, leading some to raise concerns that the app poses a security risk for the U.S.
Last year, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray said TikTok is harvesting users’ data and cautioned that the Chinese Communist Party could use the information for espionage. Wray also raised concerns that ByteDance can alter the platform’s algorithm and “manipulate content.”
In December 2022, Abbott echoed Wray’s concerns and ordered all state agencies to ban TikTok from state-issued devices, warning that the app may expose Texas officials to foreign surveillance.
“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,” said Abbott. “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.”
Abbott’s directive also impacts state-funded public universities, including the University of Texas System and the Texas A&M University System.
In an email sent out earlier this week, the University of Texas at Austin announced that students can no longer access TikTok while connected to the university’s Wi-Fi and wired networks. The school also removed the app from all university-owned devices. However, students and faculty can still use TikTok for research if they receive permission from the university president, the UT System chancellor, and the governor’s office.
The A&M University System implemented similar restrictions soon after UT, and West Texas A&M University released a statement informing students about the new policy and condemning TikTok:
What was originally a privacy concern is now a cybersecurity and influence operational issue.
Other Texas public universities, including the University of North Texas, have enacted similar TikTok bans. However, some, like the University of Houston and Texas Tech, have only blocked TikTok on school-owned devices and are waiting for more instructions from state officials before banning the app from campus Wi-Fi.
“We understand that a model plan is in development for state agencies, and we will evaluate that guidance when it becomes available to ensure compliance,” said the University of Houston. “We continually monitor cybersecurity threat intelligence and implement appropriate measures for the protection of our university information resources and community.”
Texas state agencies, including public universities, have until February 15 to submit their updated TikTok policies.