US investigating TikTok owner over possible spying on journalists
The US Department of Justice is investigating TikTok for surveillance of American citizens, including several journalists, by its Chinese parent company ByteDance.
The investigation began late last year after the company admitted that its employees had wrongfully obtained data from US TikTok users, including two reporters, according to The New York Times.
According to the report, Beijing-based ByteDance is being investigated by the department’s Criminal Division and the FBI, citing a person familiar with the situation.
Confirmation of the investigation comes as the US moves closer to a potential ban on TikTok in the country due to it being perceived as a “national security threat”.
U.S. lawmakers have expressed concern that TikTok could provide China with a loophole to the personal information of U.S. citizens.
TikTok reported this week that the Biden administration has demanded that the app’s Chinese owners relinquish their stakes in it or face a possible US ban.
The federal criminal investigation was previously reported by Forbes magazine, whose journalist said she was one of the people whose data TikTok tracked.
Last December, TikTok admitted that its employees had accessed two journalists’ personal data without their knowledge as part of an “investigation” by the company.
The parent company of the popular video app said its employees had wrongfully accessed a journalist’s data in an unsuccessful attempt to investigate a company leak.
Employees looked at the journalists’ IP addresses to see if they were in the same location as employees suspected of leaking confidential information.
Four ByteDance employees involved in the incident have been fired, including two in China and two in the US, while company officials said they are taking extra steps to protect user data.
On Thursday, China’s foreign ministry responded that the United States has yet to provide evidence that TikTok threatens national security. Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at the daily briefing that the United States should stop cracking down on such companies.
CFIUS, the influential national security body, unanimously recommended that ByteDance get rid of TikTok in 2020. Under pressure from then-President Trump, ByteDance tried unsuccessfully in late 2020 to complete a deal with Walmart and Oracle to move TikTok’s US assets into a new entity.
“If the goal is to protect national security, the takeover will not solve the problem: the change of ownership will not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access to them,” a Tiktok spokesperson said in a statement.
TikTok CEO Show Zi Chu is due to address the US Congress next week. It’s unclear whether the Chinese government will approve any sale, and the Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Last week, the White House backed a bill by a dozen senators giving President Joe Biden the power to ban Chinese-owned TikTok and other foreign technology if it poses a national security threat.
Meanwhile, the UK and New Zealand have banned staff from using TikTok on government devices.
The UK government did not rule out a total ban on TikTok this week due to “security risks”.
Metro.co.uk reached out to TikTok for comment.
MORE: New Zealand becomes latest country to ban TikTok on government devices
MORE: Which countries have banned TikTok as New Zealand bans it from public phones?