Dozens of US schools and universities ban TikTok

TikTok captures user data more aggressively than other apps (AP)
TikTok captures user data more aggressively than other apps (AP)

An increasing number of US public schools and universities are banning TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned social media app that allows users to share short videos.

They follow the lead of the federal government and several states, which are banning the social media app because authorities believe that foreign governments – specifically China – could use the app to spy on Americans.

The app was created by bytedancebased in China and with ties to the Chinese government.

The University of Oklahoma, Auburn University (Alabama) and 26 Georgia public universities have banned the app on their campus Wi-Fi networks. Montana’s governor has asked the state’s university system to ban it.

Some primary and secondary schools have also blocked the app. Public schools in Stafford, Prince William and Loudoun counties in Virginia have banned TikTok on school devices and on school Wi-Fi networks. The Louisiana state superintendent of education recommended that schools in the state remove the app from public devices and block it on school devices.

As a cybersecurity researcher, I don’t think these schools are overreacting. TikTok captures user data more aggressively than other apps.

The version of TikTok that is raising all these concerns is not available in China itself.. In an effort to protect Chinese students from the harmful effects of social media, the Chinese Communist Party has enacted a rule limiting the time students can spend on TikTok to 40 minutes a day. And they can only watch patriotic-themed videos or educational content, like science experiments and museum exhibits.

All major social media platforms raise privacy concerns and include security risks for users.

But TikTok does more than the rest. Its default privacy settings allow the app to collect much more information than it actually needs to function.

Every hour, the app accesses users’ contact lists and calendars. It also collects the location of the devices used to access the service and can scan hard drives connected to any of those devices.

If a user changes their privacy settings to avoid that scrutiny, the app persistently asks them to reset that permission. Other social media apps, like Facebook, don’t ask users to review their privacy settings if they block their information.

The way TikTok handles the data it collects from users is also raising concerns. Ireland’s data protection regulator, for example, is investigating possible illegal transfers of data from European citizens to Chinese servers and possible violations of rules protecting children’s privacy.

As with other social networking services, researchers have found serious vulnerabilities in TikTok.

In 2020, the cybersecurity company Check Point discovered that users could be sent messages that appeared to come from TikTok but actually contained malicious links. When users clicked on those links, Check Point researchers could gain control of their TikTok accounts, access private information, delete existing content, and even post new material under that user’s account.

Hackers have also taken advantage of TikTok’s viral trends to distribute malicious software that creates additional cybersecurity issues. For example, a trend called the “Invisible Challenge” encouraged users to use a TikTok filter called “Invisible Body” to record themselves nude, assuring users that their followers would only see a blurry image, not anything revealing.

Cybercriminals created videos on TikTok in which they claimed to have created software that would reveal users’ naked bodies by inverting the body masking filter. But the software they encouraged users to download was actually only stealing users’ social media, credit card, and cryptocurrency credentials from their phones, as well as files from victims’ computers.

Every hour, the application accesses users' contact lists and calendars (Reuters)
Every hour, the application accesses users’ contact lists and calendars (Reuters)

Many US lawmakers have opposed the app’s location services, saying they could allow the Chinese government to monitor the movements and location of US citizens, including members of the military or government officials.

If the Chinese government wants information on the more than 90 million TikTok users, it doesn’t need to hack anything.

This is because China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law requires Chinese companies to share any data they collect if the government requests it.

Tech industry watchers have also raised concerns that ByteDance, the company that makes TikTok, may be partly owned by the Chinese government.

These issues take on even more significance in the context of the Chinese government’s alleged efforts to build a massive “data lake” with information on all Americans. China has been linked to several large-scale cyberattacks targeting federal employees and US consumers. These attacks include the 2015 hack of the US Office of Personnel Management, the 2017 attacks on the consumer credit reporting agency Equifax, and the 2018 attack on the Marriott International hotel group.

Teachers and school administrators have used TikTok in some interesting and useful ways, including connecting with students, building relationships, teaching about the risks of social media, and giving quick little lessons.

But it’s not clear if those positive effects outweigh the potential and actual harm. In addition to general concern about the potential risks of social media addiction, some school officials say that the increased use of TikTok has caused students to stop paying attention to teachers.

In addition, the app’s algorithm for recommending videos to watch next has increased the risk of suicide and eating disorders. The “one-chip challenge,” which asks TikTok users to eat a single potato chip containing two of the world’s hottest chili peppers, sent some students to the hospital and sickened others.

TikTok videos have also led students to vandalism. In response to a viral challenge, some students stole sinks and soap dishes from schools.

With all this potential for damages, it’s no surprise that school authorities are considering banning TikTok.

*Article originally published on The Conversation by Nir Kshetri, Professor of Management, University of North Carolina – Greensboro

Keep reading:

The European Union could ban TikTok for damage to mental health
The University of Florida urged its students to stop using TikTok in the face of possible foreign espionage

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