TikTok ban comes to UTD

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After an order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott on Dec. 7, UTD must delete TikTok from all state-issued devices and formulate a policy for the app on personal devices in the coming months.

On Dec. 21, OIT began removing the popular social media platform from all UTD-owned devices and awaits further instruction from the governor for additional changes in early 2023.

“We have gained information about growing threats posed by TikTok that require immediate action to protect our state’s sensitive information and critical infrastructure,” Abbott said in the order.

As a result, government-issued “cellphones, laptops, desktop computers” and anything with internet connectivity are subject to the ban, as stated by Chief Information Officer Frank Feagans and Chief Information Security Officer Nate Howe in an email to Comets. Additionally, UTD schools and departments must suspend activities on existing TikTok accounts to comply with the order.

Abbott’s announcement also directed the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) to develop a model plan by Jan. 15 so other state agencies (including public colleges) can address vulnerabilities. UTD will then have until Feb. 15 to come up with its own policy for TikTok on personal devices.

The announcement comes as an extension of The Lone Star Infrastructure Protection Act (LIPA), which was passed in 2021 to prevent Texas businesses and governments from contracting with foreign entities like ByteDance — the owner of TikTok — or individuals tied to the Chinese, Russian, North Korean and Iranian governments over concerns about data harvesting.

“Together, we will defend the state of Texas against a Chinese government that wields TikTok to attack our way of life,” Abbott said in the order.

Texas is not the only state to emulate the Senate’s bipartisan bill “No TikTok on Government Devices Act,” which bars federal employees from using the video-sharing service on government-issued devices and was approved by President Biden on Dec. 23. Prior to the federal bill, Texas and several other states enacted their own restrictions on TikTok, including Alabama, Maryland, South Carolina and Utah, according to The Dallas Morning News. The federal bill follows proof of international espionage attempts codenamed “Project Raven.” 

Concerns about TikTok’s security have been in the news since early 2020, when the Trump administration attempted to shut down TikTok under concerns of Chinese spying but ultimately failed to appeal to Congress. The topic resurfaced on Oct. 20 when Forbes reported that TikTok parent company ByteDance was capable of tracking and monitoring users’ IP addresses and personal information. ByteDance employs members of the Chinese Communist Party and may harvest data from American users. This was followed by an announcement on Nov. 15 where FBI Director Chris Wray labeled TikTok a threat to U.S. national security and foreign policy.

“The Chinese government could use [TikTok] to control data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operation,” Wray said according to Reuters.

The Mercury reached out to UTD’s information security and communications offices who suggested reviewing the governor’s announcement and UTD’s staff guidelines. UTD officials did not wish to comment further until the guidelines from the two Texas departments are released in mid-January.

“We are following the clear direction of the governor and UT system,” Feagans said over email. “It’s too early to understand what additional steps may need to be taken and, as such, the full impact.”

Howe also said over email that UTD will monitor the governor’s direction and comply with any new plans.

UTD has multiple departments with official TikTok accounts that are affected, such as @utdallasspirit, @utdallasdining and @official_temoc. The Mercury reached out to the Comet Spirit program coaches and received no response.

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