First launched by Chinese-owned company ByteDance in 2016 to allow users to make, share and watch short videos, the TikTok app is facing national security concerns in the U.S. Most recently, Purdue University banned TikTok March 27 from the university’s Wi-Fi.
Related: [Purdue University bans TikTok on school WiFi]
Several politicians, including Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, are concerned American user data collected by the app could be used by the Chinese government to spy on the public.
National Security Concerns
Sarah Bauerle-Danzman, associate professor of International Studies at IU, said TikTok is more problematic than other social media apps because she has found in her research the app collects information not just on the app but across the phone. Other apps like YouTube and Instagram have been found to collect personal data on a phone. She also said TikTok has been caught collecting information they were not supposed to collect and claimed they did not have access to. TikTok is capable of collecting information including private messages, location, camera, contacts and IP address.
“TikTok has its own set of problems,” she said. “They’re not trustworthy. They have a documented history of lying or not being honest about what it is they’re collecting.”
However, banning TikTok could set a dangerous precedent in the U.S. and could create pressure to ban other apps, Brauerle-Danzman said. She argued it does not promote democratic values when working with organizations internationally.
“Divestment is a much better way of dealing with national security problems that are associated with TikTok,” Bauerle-Danzman said.
She said China will make it very difficult to give up government ownership and control of TikTok because of how valuable the app is; it is currently estimated to be worth $75 billion. Selling TikTok to an American company would involve ByteDance giving up China’s control over the app. President Biden proposed selling the app to an American company as an option this year as an alternative to a potential ban.
Another option would be TikTok becoming a publicly traded company in the U.S. This would require TikTok to provide business and financial reports to the public and for the company’s securities to trade on public markets. A company’s securities are tradable financial tools used to raise capital in a market.
“It would allow the public to really see what is going on with TikTok and also make sure TikTok is adhering to the kind of principles of the market,” she said.
Anthony Fargo, director of the Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies at IU, said legal courts will likely be skeptical of TikTok bans because it is hard to differentiate TikTok from other social media sites that collect just as much data and information from users. Fargo noted that potential widespread bans on TikTok may set a precedent for similar social media apps.
“It’s hard to stuff the genie back in the bottle once you’ve opened it,” Fargo said. “It’s the first case of its kind. If you ban TikTok, what's next?”
On March 1, a House committee advanced legislation that would allow President Biden to ban TikTok on all the nation’s devices. Universities across the country have already banned TikTok as well as Britain and Canada.
Fargo said one option is to compromise and ban TikTok on government-issued devices and school Wi-Fi networks. He said doing this could help keep documents and information safe.
Depending on each university’s motivation, Fargo said banning TikTok may reassure educators their documents and servers are secure. However, students will still find ways to access the app.
“Employers have some right to control what their employees do, it’s within the scope of trying to control the actions of their employees,” Fargo said. “There isn’t that same kind of relationship between university and student.”
While Fargo said it is easy to dismiss the debate surrounding TikTok, it is important to consider how much personal data social media sites collect and buy.
“It’s one of those doors you hate to see open,” Fargo said.
Last December, Rokita filed two lawsuits against TikTok, accusing the company of making false claims concerning its user-data safety and age-appropriate content. The first lawsuit claimed TikTok negatively influenced the behavior of minors by providing content including drug use and profanity. The second suit alleged TikTok had access to sensitive data and personal information.
Purdue University is the first public college in Indiana to ban TikTok on its Wi-Fi.
Trevor Peters, senior communication specialist at Purdue, said in an emailed statement to the IDS that the ban was enacted due to invasive privacy issues the university claims the app presents. Peters specifically cited concerns regarding the app having access to users’ contacts and locations.
Raina Ricely, a freshman at Purdue, said she is not surprised Purdue decided to ban the app. While she does not have TikTok, she understands why the app is problematic. After the ban, she said students have still been able to use TikTok using cellular data.
“I understand that TikTok’s lack of cyber security is cause for concern, but I think that there are other tech companies that are just as guilty,” Ricely said. “I think a lot of students are really annoyed by the university’s decision.”
Amanda Roach, interim director of strategic communications at IU, said in an email statement to the IDS that the university will continue to observe how other universities deal with TikTok and the impact of those decisions.
“Our priority remains focused on ensuring that our students, faculty, and staff have access to the resources they need to stay safe online, and protect both personal and university data,” Roach said in the statement.
IU senior Maggie Joseph said a potential TikTok ban at IU would not affect her because she only uses the app when off campus. Even though she said she was concerned, she still regularly continues to use the app.
IU sophomore Christian Oates said he uses TikTok to consume and create content. While he is concerned about his data privacy and is careful when choosing what data apps and websites can collect, he said he would not delete TikTok.
“I can’t delete it,” Oates said. “I’m in too deep.”
Oates said he does not think it is a good idea for universities to ban TikTok because the app provides more pros than cons. For Oates, the app is a way to find information, express oneself and find a community.
“They try to say it’s for the safety of their students, but in the end, it might just be to protect themselves,” Oates said.