Justice Department Probes TikTok’s Tracking of U.S. Journalists
The Justice Department is investigating the surveillance of American journalists by TikTok’s Chinese owners, a person familiar with the matter said, a revelation that comes as the Biden administration has shifted toward a tougher approach to address the perceived security threat from the video-sharing app.
ByteDance General Counsel Erich Andersen at the time described the improper access of user data as “a misguided plan” that looked at the IP addresses of the journalists “to determine whether they were in the same location as the employees suspected of leaking confidential information.” He said the reporters worked for BuzzFeed and the Financial Times.
The Justice Department, FBI and federal prosecutors in Virginia are investigating, one of the people said.
ByteDance Friday said it “strongly condemned” the actions of the employees involved in the effort, who it said were no longer at the company. “Our internal investigation is still ongoing, and we will cooperate with any official investigations when brought to us,” the company said.
In response to the company’s December findings, TikTok has said it was restructuring its Internal Audit and Risk Control department, and removed all user data access and permissions for the department.
Confirmation of the federal probe comes as the Biden administration has demanded that Tiktok’s Chinese owners sell their stakes in the app or face a possible U.S. ban of the social media service, The Wall Street Journal reported. That represented a major shift in policy on the part of the Biden administration, which has been under fire from some Republicans—who say it hasn’t taken a tough enough stance to address national security concerns related to TikTok. The Justice Department investigation was reported earlier by Forbes, which documented the improper access of user data in October.
TikTok’s chief executive Shou Zi Chew has said that divesting the company from its Chinese owners doesn’t offer any more protection than a multibillion-dollar plan the company has already proposed. That plan involves hiring an American partner, Oracle Corp., to store American users’ data and safeguard against any Chinese influence over what videos Americans view on the app. He is scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill next week.
The federal investigation began after the Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd. in December acknowledged that its employees misused their authority to access the data of journalists in an effort to identify leaks of confidential company information.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., or Cfius—a multiagency federal task force that oversees national-security risks in cross-border investments—made the sale demand recently, people familiar with the matter said.
TikTok executives have said that 60% of ByteDance shares are owned by global investors, 20% by employees and 20% by its founders, though the founders’ shares carry outsize voting rights, as is common with tech companies. The company was founded in Beijing in 2012 by Zhang Yiming, ByteDance Chief Executive Liang Rubo and others.
TikTok has been engulfed in controversy for more than two years over concerns from U.S. lawmakers, regulators and officials in the Trump and Biden administrations about national security risks related to data use and storage for TikTok. The company has sought to resolve the issue by taking steps to separate itself structurally from its parent company, as well as through promises to store U.S. data within the country.
The app has emerged as a favorite among American teenagers and young adults but has also drawn scrutiny due to concerns that it could be used to collect data on Americans—or that it could control the messages its users receive to influence domestic and international events.