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Why more universities and schools in the US are banning TikTok

The University of Texas at Austin, the University of Oklahoma, Auburn University and other colleges have banned the app from campus Wi-Fi in recent weeks.
/ Source: TODAY

The University of Texas at Austin joined several other colleges across the U.S. on Jan. 17 in blocking access to TikTok on the school's Wi-Fi, as state governments ban the app over concerns the company behind TikTok could pose national security and privacy risks.

UT-Austin joins Auburn University, the University of Oklahoma and the 26 universities and colleges within the University System of Georgia in banning the app from campus Wi-Fi in recent weeks.

Jeff Neyland, advisor to the president for technology strategy at UT-Austin, wrote in a message to students that the university took the steps to ban the app after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's December directive for all state agencies to "eliminate the cybersecurity risks posed by TikTok."

"The university is taking these important steps to eliminate risks to information contained in the university’s network and to our critical infrastructure," Neyland said. "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."

The ban will block the IP address associated with TikTok, meaning the app won't load while connected to the schools' Wi-Fi, but students can still access TikTok on their phones using their personal cellular devices.

Genesis Pieri, a second-year student at UT-Austin, told TODAY she questions what TikTok is doing with user data, but "it's not something that keeps me up at night."

"It’s something that is in the back of my head, like, what are they doing with this data, if they do have it?" Pieri said.

Pieri has over 12,000 followers on TikTok, and she explains that influencers she grew up watching didn’t look like her. She fears the ban could inhibit her push for better representation on the app, as many students will no longer be able to view and comment on the videos as freely.

President Joe Biden signed a bill banning TikTok from federally-owned devices in December, and the House of Representatives has also banned the app from any House-issued devices.

At least 31 states have now have issued some sort of TikTok ban, mostly on government-owned phones and devices.

TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese firm ByteDance, said in a statement to TODAY it does not store U.S. user data in China, or share the information with the Chinese government.

"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," the company said.

U.S. officials still fear the company could manipulate users, particularly through its recommendation algorithms.

"(The algorithms) are lot more worrisome in the hands of the Chinese communist party than whether or not you’re steering someone as an influencer to one product or another," FBI Director Christopher Wray said in December.

The clock could be ticking for TikTok at more college campuses, and the U.S. as a whole.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte sent a letter on Jan. 3 to the Board of Regents for the state's public colleges and universities, urging the board to prevent the use of TikTok while connected to the schools' network, and a ban will be going into place on Jan. 20, according to Clayton T. Christian, the state's commissioner of higher education.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced bipartisan legislation that would ban TikTok in the U.S. last month, though it is unclear how long it would take for the bill to pass Congress.