The Biden administration has recently stepped up pressure on TikTok over national security concerns stemming from its ties to China, and apparently the Justice Department and FBI are also exerting pressure themselves.
Forbes first reported that the agencies are actively investigating ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company. The investigation was reportedly initiated after some employees used the app to spy on American journalists – an incident confirmed by an internal investigation late last year.
Now, The New York Times and other outlets have matched Forbes’ reporting, confirming that the Fraud Division of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division is working with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia to investigate the breach of user privacy.
In its internal investigation, ByteDance found that some employees were accessing data on TikTok accounts of US journalists to investigate who at the company was leaking information to reporters. Of the employees involved in the incident – who were subsequently fired – two were part of the company’s operations in China.
The latest revelations come a week before TikTok’s CEO is due to testify before Congress — an appearance likely to be met with deep suspicion, even by tech hearing standards. In the days leading up to the hearing, the Biden administration has hardened its stance on the company significantly, threatening to ban the app in the US if TikTok’s Chinese owners don’t sell the company.
TikTok rejected the White House’s new demand for divestment, arguing that selling the company won’t allay government concerns. TikTok instead pointed to its own proposed solution, though it’s hard to convince the US government that a China-based company operating in the US should be able to self-regulate. To allay concerns about the app’s relationship with China, TikTok launched a $1.5 billion initiative known as “Project Texas” that would domestically store US user data and subject the company to an audit process. by the American technology giant Oracle.