WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is investigating the surveillance of US citizens, including several journalists covering the technology 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 related to the December admission by the ByteDance company that its employees had improperly obtained the data of US TikTok usersincluding that of two reporters and some of their associates.
The department’s criminal division, the FBI and the US 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 spokesman had no comment.
The confirmation of the investigation comes as the White House hardens its stance to force the company to address national security concerns about tiktok. They include fears that China could be using the popular video service to collect data or spy on Americans, undermine democratic institutions and foster Internet addictions among young people.
TikTok revealed this week that the Biden administration had asked its owner to sell the app — which is already blocked from government phones in the US, Europe, and more than two dozen states — or face a possible nationwide ban.
The federal criminal investigation was previously reported by Forbes magazine. The journalist who wrote the story said she was one of the people whose data had been tracked by the company.
The ByteDance employees involved in the surveillance, who were later fired, were trying to find the sources of the alleged leaks of internal conversations and business documents to journalists. They gained access to the IP addresses and other data of the reporters and the 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 breaches 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 that he could support an effort, now making its way through Congress, to ban the app in the US.
This represents a drastic change from last year, when some in management expressed confidence that a compromise could be reached that would allow the company to continue operations in exchange for major changes to the security and governance of its data.
TikTok 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 the number two official of the Department of Justice, Lisa Monaco, did not sign a 90-page draft agreementand the Treasury Department, which plays a crucial role in approving deals involving national security risks, expressed skepticism that the potential deal would solve national security problems, people with knowledge of the matter said.
The White House now seems to be moving quickly in the other direction, with top officials increasingly seeing a divestment as the only acceptable path forward.
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 proposal, which involves storing American data in the United States, offers the best possible protection for users.
“If the goal is to protect national security, divestiture does not solve the problem: A change in ownership would not place new restrictions on data flows or access,” Maureen Shanahan, a TikTok spokeswoman, said in a statement this week.
TikTok CEO, Shou Zi chew, is scheduled to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee next week. It is expected to face questions about the app’s links to China, as well as concerns that it offers content that is harmful to young people.
A TikTok spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment and referred all questions to ByteDance.
A ByteDance spokeswoman did not respond. But she had told Forbes that the company “strongly condemned the actions of those found to have been involved” and that it would “cooperate with any official investigation when brought to our attention.”