UND leaders, students, weigh pros and cons of TikTok use on campus
State Board of Higher Education will meet in May to further discuss security, data privacy concerns
GRAND FORKS — With discussions across the nation heating up regarding the use of TikTok on university and government networks, UND administrators and students have varying opinions on how the platform affects the campus community.
TikTok, a Chinese-owned social media company, has raised controversy in recent months over concerns about the company’s ties to the Chinese government, and its ability to collect data on its nearly 100 million U.S. users. Several state governments and university systems have banned TikTok’s use on their networks and employees’ devices.
Gov. Doug Burgum banned the app from use on state-owned devices in December. The app was also discussed during a recent State Board of Higher Education meeting , though no decisions have been made on its use on college campuses in North Dakota.
UND President Andrew Armacost urged users of all social media platforms to be cognizant of the risks inherent with sharing any personal information.
“In general, social media opens up an avenue to information about anybody who uses it,” he said. “Our No. 1 urging to people is that they use it smartly, and in ways that don’t expose the depths of their lives to others. In particular to TikTok, there have been security concerns related to that information getting into the hands of a nation that could misuse user information.”
Madhavi Marasinghe, UND’s chief information officer, said even if an individual is not actively using TikTok, the platform can still gain access to them through contacts who are using it.
“Once a user signs up for TikTok, they may provide access to their contact list as well,” she said. “Now, I may not be a TikTok user myself, but if one of my friends uses it, my contact information is still accessible on their phone. The Chinese government can then ask companies to provide data on users. The main concern then is, what will they do with it?”
Marasinghe also said even if the North Dakota University System and UND decide to ban TikTok from their networks, users would still be able to access the platform via cellular data. She said this could pose problems for university networks if compromised devices connect to them.
“One thing to keep in mind is that by banning TikTok on university-owned devices or networks, we are not eliminating the risk, only mitigating it,” she said. “Somebody who is using TikTok could still access it through their carrier’s data, and if their device or account is compromised, we need to have other layers of security to protect our networks. Security is like an onion — it needs to have several layers to protect the extensive amounts of sensitive data that universities have.”
Armacost said the university system takes cybersecurity at its 11 institutions of higher learning seriously.
“I think the NDUS has taken great steps toward enhancing cybersecurity,” he said. “Madhavi has been part of the effort to put into place what we call end-point security from cyberattacks."
Faith Wahl, UND student body president, said while TikTok has positive uses, she is aware of its potentially negative effects.
“In some ways, I think it’s good,” she said. “Some people use it for finding new workouts, finding new recipes and study habits, but I also think it can be a huge time waster. In the age of digitization and having your location on all the time, privacy is not what it used to be. I’m not sure students are completely aware of all the privacy concerns that may be out there, or the extent to which social media platforms are harvesting their data, but I do think if UND were to ban TikTok, there would probably be some backlash.”
Wahl also said the subject of data privacy, and the impact of forms of artificial intelligence such as ChatGPT, have been topics of discussion in her business ethics courses.
Dylan Quick, a sophomore majoring in Spanish and nursing, said he believes UND uses TikTok to communicate with its students quickly and effectively.
“I think UND’s TikTok account has good outreach,” he said. “Both the housing and dining departments use it to send us notifications.”
Micah Blake, a commercial aviation student, said he does not use TikTok due to privacy concerns and a belief that the platform would take up too much of his time.
“I don’t trust it,” he said. “I’ve heard too many reports of Chinese spying. I also think there’s a lot of rabbit holes you can go down, and end up wasting hours of time.”
Armacost said the decision on whether to ban TikTok from UND’s network or its installation on employees’ devices will ultimately rest with the university system's recommendation.
“What we’ll do at UND, of course, is follow whatever the North Dakota University System policy is regarding TikTok, or any other social media that may pose a risk to users,” he said.
The State Board of Higher Education, which oversees the NDUS, will discuss concerns pertaining to TikTok at its next meeting in May.