The US Department of Justice is probing ByteDance’s surveillance of American journalists via TikTok, according to a person familiar with the matter, as authorities scrutinise the popular social media platform’s Chinese owner after it admitted to improperly obtaining user data.
ByteDance in December revealed user data from the short-form video app was obtained to study journalists’ locations as part of an internal investigation into information being shared with the media.
The DoJ and the US attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia have requested information from ByteDance on how staff used TikTok to find details on American journalists’ locations and other private data, according to Forbes, which first reported the investigations.
A UK-based Financial Times journalist, Cristina Criddle, who had led a string of stories revealing that dozens of staff had left TikTok’s London office and that some had worked 12-hour days or had been demoted after taking time off, was among the targets.
ByteDance employees in the US and China obtained her IP addresses and other personal data to assess whether she was near any ByteDance workers, but the company found no leaks.
The company also targeted a BuzzFeed reporter and several users linked to the journalists through their TikTok accounts.
ByteDance said on Thursday: “We have strongly condemned the actions of the individuals found to have been involved, and they are no longer employed at ByteDance. Our internal investigation is still ongoing, and we will co-operate with any official investigations when brought to us.”
The DoJ and FBI declined to comment. The US attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The probes come as the US government has threatened to ban TikTok on national security grounds if ByteDance does not sell its stake. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, the US Treasury-led panel that vets foreign investment in the country, has requested the divestiture as part of its assessment of the app, according to people familiar with the matter.
TikTok has faced scrutiny amid fears that American users’ data may be shared with the Chinese government, claims that the company has denied. A bipartisan group of senators has introduced a bill that would give the Biden administration the authority to ban Chinese apps that pose security threats.
For two years, TikTok has been working on a national security deal with the US government, although negotiations have recently stalled. TikTok has spent more than $1.5bn on “Project Texas”, a corporate restructuring plan to safeguard user data and content from Chinese influence through a partnership with US cloud software group Oracle in order to meet the Cfius requests.
Additional reporting by Hannah Murphy in San Francisco