TikTok is under investigation by the US Department of Justice for the surveillance of US citizens, including several journalists, by its Chinese parent company, ByteDance.
The investigation began late last year, after the company admitted that its employees had improperly obtained the data of American TikTok users, including that of two reporters, the New York Times reported.
According to the report, Beijing-based ByteDance is under investigation by the department’s criminal division and the FBI, citing a person with knowledge of the situation.
Confirmation of the investigation emerges as the The United States is closer to a possible TikTok ban in the country for being perceived as a ‘threat to national security’.
US lawmakers have expressed concern that Tik Tok it could give China a back door into the personal information of US citizens.
This week, TikTok revealed that the Biden administration has demanded that the app’s Chinese owners divest their stakes or face a possible US ban.
The federal criminal investigation was previously reported by Forbes magazine, whose reporter said she was one of the people whose data had been tracked by TikTok.
Last December, TikTok admitted that its staff accessed the private data of two journalists without their knowledge as part of an ‘investigation’ of the company.
The parent company of the popular video app said its employees improperly accessed the journalist’s data as part of a failed effort to investigate leaks of company information.
Employees looked at the IP addresses of journalists trying to find out if they were in the same location as employees suspected of leaking confidential information.
Four ByteDance employees who were involved in the incident have been fired, including two in China and two in the United States, while company officials said they were taking additional steps to protect user data.
On Thursday, China’s Foreign Ministry responded by saying the United States had yet to provide evidence that TikTok threatened national security. Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a daily briefing that the United States should stop cracking down on such companies.
CFIUS, a powerful national security body, unanimously recommended in 2020 that ByteDance get rid of TikTok. Under pressure from then-President Trump, ByteDance in late 2020 unsuccessfully attempted to finalize a deal with Walmart and Oracle to shift TikTok’s US assets to a new entity.
“If the goal is to protect national security, divestment does not solve the problem: a change of ownership would not place new restrictions on data flows or access,” a Tiktok spokesperson said in a statement.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will appear before the US Congress next week. It is not clear whether the Chinese government would approve any sale, and the Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Last week, the White House backed legislation by a dozen senators to give the president Joe Biden the power to ban chinese property Tik Tok and other foreign-based technologies if they pose threats to national security.
Meanwhile, the UK and New Zealand have banned staff from using TikTok on government devices.
The UK government this week did not rule out an outright ban on TikTok for “security risks”.
Metro.co.uk has contacted TikTok for comment.
FURTHER : New Zealand becomes latest country to ban TikTok on government devices
FURTHER : Which countries have banned TikTok while New Zealand bans it on government phones?