Justice Department investigating TikTok owner for possible spying on journalists

Justice Department investigating TikTok owner for possible spying on journalists

Justice Department investigating TikTok owner for possible spying on journalists

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WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is investigating the surveillance of U.S. citizens, including several journalists who cover the tech industry, by the Chinese company that owns TikTok, according to three people familiar with the matter.


The investigation, which began late last year, appears to be linked to a December admission by the company ByteDance that its employees had improperly obtained the data of American TikTok users, including that of two journalists and some of their associates.

The department’s criminal division, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia are investigating ByteDance, which is based in Beijing and has close ties to the Chinese government, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

A Justice Department spokesperson had no comment.

Confirmation of the investigation comes as the White House is toughening its stance to force the company to address national security concerns about TikTok. In particular, they fear that China could use the popular video service to gather data on or spy on Americans, undermine democratic institutions and foster internet addiction among young people.

TikTok revealed this week that the Biden administration had asked its owner to sell the app – which is already blocked on government phones in the United States, Europe and more than two dozen states – or face to a possible national ban.

The federal criminal investigation was reported earlier by Forbes magazine. The journalist who wrote the article said she was among those whose data had been tracked by the company.

ByteDance employees involved in the surveillance, who were later fired, were trying to find the sources of alleged leaks of internal conversations and business documents to reporters. They gained access to the IP addresses and other data of journalists and people they were connected to through their TikTok accounts.

Two of the employees were based in China. The company said it was making changes to prevent such violations in the future.

But the company’s assurances have done little to quell growing demands from politicians on both sides of the aisle to block or ban the app. President Biden has said he could support an effort, currently underway in Congress, to ban the app in the United States.

This represents a dramatic change from last year, when some members of the administration expressed confidence that a compromise could be found that would allow the company to continue operations in exchange for major changes in its security and its data governance.

TikTok had hoped that a group of federal agencies known as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, would approve its plans to operate in the country while remaining under ByteDance ownership.

But Justice Department No. 2 official Lisa Monaco failed to sign off on a 90-page draft deal, and the Treasury Department, which plays a crucial role in approving deals that involve risks to national security, expressed skepticism about the potential deal. would solve national security concerns, people with knowledge of the matter said.

The White House now appears to be moving quickly in the other direction, with senior officials increasingly seeing divestment as the only acceptable path.

Officials at TikTok, which has a strong public relations and lobbying operation in Washington, said they were weighing their options and expressed disappointment at the pressure to sell.

The company said its security proposition, which involves storing Americans’ data in the United States, provides the best possible protection for users.

“If protecting national security is the goal, divestment does not solve the problem: a change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access,” said spokesperson Maureen Shanahan. from TikTok, in a statement this week.

TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew is due to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee next week. It is expected to face questions about the app’s ties to China, as well as concerns about spreading content that is harmful to young people.

A TikTok spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment and directed all questions to ByteDance.

A ByteDance spokeswoman did not respond. But she had told Forbes that the company “strongly condemns the actions of those involved” and “would cooperate with any official investigation presented to us.”


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