The Justice Department and the FBI are investigating the parent company of the popular social media app TikTok for surveilling American citizens, including journalists.
According to reports, federal authorities began their investigation late last year, after TikTok owner ByteDance Ltd. acknowledged that some of its employees improperly accessed journalists’ location data and other private data. Forbes was the first to report the investigations.
The investigation comes amid scrutiny of the app and a hardening policy stance by a bipartisan group of lawmakers and the White House over concerns that China is using the app to gather data on American citizens and influence elections.
ByteDance is based in China and has ties to the Chinese government. The app is banned from federal government devices, government devices in more than two dozen states and those in several European countries.
The FBI and the Justice Department are part of an agency called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which has asked ByteDance to divest from the U.S. arm of the app – or face a potential nationwide ban, which the White House has signaled it might support.
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Former President Donald Trump in 2020 issued an executive order that effectively forced the company to divest of its U.S.-held assets, drawing on emergency economic powers. Despite several reports that a sale was imminent, no agreement was reached. The order did not survive legal challenges in federal court and was ultimately revoked by President Joe Biden.
The latest request has come amid ongoing negotiations between the company and the government over its ownership and the storage of data belonging to Americans. ByteDance has previously proposed another plan whereby the data from U.S. users would be stored in the U.S. and managed by a U.S.-based team.
ByteDance said in December that the employees who accessed the journalist’s data did so in a bid to uncover the source of leaks. Those employees have been fired, it said.
Federal prosecutors in Virginia are also investigating ByteDance, according to reports. TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew is scheduled to testify in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee next week.