International security and student safety: Why schools are banning TikTok

From data breaches to children being hospitalized, the dangers are varied and plentiful.

From “devious licks” to vandalizing school property, more schools are becoming aware of the dangerous TikTok trends that students can’t get enough of. But there’s more to be worried about than simply social media trends. TikTok can be a massive cybersecurity issue.

Several school districts and universities have pulled the plug and banned the use of the app amidst data privacy concerns. For example, Louisiana’s state superintendent of education recommended that the app be removed from public devices and have it blocked on school-issued devices. Alabama’s Auburn University also blocked it for all students and faculty on campus.

Dr. Nir Kshetri, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro whose research focuses heavily on international cybersecurity and international relations, says the app poses substantial risks in terms of consumer data.

“The biggest problem is its aggressive privacy violation policy,” he says. “It asks users to provide a lot of data, and if users don’t want to it asks again.”

All social media applications do this to some extent, he adds, but not to the degree TikTok does.

“The most serious issue here is probably in the area of national security,” according to Kshetri. “Close to 100 million people in the U.S. currently use TikTok. In the past, intelligence officials have concluded that China is behind this large-scale hacking, like the Office of Personnel Management in 2015 and the hotel Marriott International.”

He adds that it’s incredibly difficult to hack such large-scale companies and successfully obtain 100% of their personal data. But with TikTok, it’s different. Its default privacy settings allow the app to collect substantially more information than the app actually needs to function.

“That is the concern unique to TikTok compared to other social media websites,” he says.

In terms of cybersecurity, Kshetri recently published an article outlining some of the app’s vulnerabilities, which were identified in 2020 by the cybersecurity company Check Point.

“Check Point found that it could send users messages that looked as if they came from TikTok but actually contained malicious links,” he wrote. “When users clicked on those links, Check Point’s researchers could seize control of their TikTok accounts, get access to private information, delete existing content and even post new material under that user’s account.”

“With all that potential for harm and damage, it’s not surprising school officials are considering a ban on TikTok,” he concluded in his article.

In addition to data privacy concerns, Kshetri says TikTok’s unique algorithm is especially harmful to students, both mentally and physically.

“There are a lot of cases of children trying to commit suicide and children who are hospitalized,” he says regarding some of the dangerous trends that have emerged from the app.

“This has led to a lot of damage to people’s health and vandalism in many schools and stealing things,” he explains. “There are ‘TikTok challenges’ that prompt the student to steal something from the school or break something, and they do it. “

While schools can’t dictate what students do off campus, they can place restrictions on usage of the app within school walls, he adds. Several districts have already done so by banning the use of the app on school WiFi and school-issued devices.

Additionally, the version of TikTok that users in the U.S. use is much different than China’s he adds. To put it simply, it’s much more addictive.

In China, he explains, students can only spend 40 minutes a day on the app. Furthermore, they can only view videos that are patriotic or educational, like science experiments or museum exhibits.

“Teachers and school administrators have used TikTok in some interesting, and useful, ways—such as connecting with students, building relationships, teaching about the risks of social media and delivering small, quick lessons,” he wrote in his article. “But it is not clear whether these positive effects counterbalance the potential and actual harm.”

More from UB: More education leaders ban TikTok for students and employees

Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a University Business staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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