TikTok is being investigated by the US Justice Department over the surveillance of American citizens, including several journalists, by its Chinese parent company, ByteDance.
The investigation began late last year, after the company admitted that its employees had inappropriately obtained the data of American TikTok users, including that of two reporters, as reported by the New York Times.
According to the report, Beijing-based, ByteDance, is being investigated by the department’s criminal division and the FBI, citing a person with knowledge of the situation.
Confirmation of the investigation comes as the US inches closer to a potential ban on TikTok in the country due to being perceived as a ‘national security threat’.
US lawmakers have expressed concern that TikTok could give China a backdoor to US citizens’ personal information.
This week, TikTok revealed that the Biden administration has demanded that the app’s Chinese owners divest their stakes in it or face a possible US ban.
The federal criminal inquiry was previously reported by Forbes magazine, whose journalist 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 a company ‘investigation’.
The parent company of the popular video app, said its employees improperly accessed the journalist’s data as part of an unsuccessful effort to investigate leaks of company information.
The employees looked at the IP addresses of journalists attempting to learn if they were in the same location as employees suspected of leaking confidential information.
Four ByteDance employees who were involved in the incident were 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 that the United States had yet to provide evidence that TikTok threatened national security. Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a daily briefing that the United States should stop suppressing such companies.
CFIUS, a powerful national security body, had unanimously recommended in 2020 that ByteDance divest TikTok. Under pressure from then-President Trump, ByteDance in late 2020 unsuccessfully sought to finalize a deal with Walmart and Oracle to shift TikTok’s US assets into a new entity.
‘If protecting national security is the objective, divestment doesn’t solve the problem: a change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access,’ a Tiktok spokesperson said in a statement.
TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew is due to appear before the US Congress next week. It is not clear if the Chinese government would approve any divestiture 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 President Joe Biden the power to ban Chinese-owned TikTok and other foreign-based technologies if they pose national security threats.
Meanwhile, the UK and New Zealand have banned staff from using TikTok on government devices.
The UK Government this week did not rule out a full TikTok ban over ‘security risks’.
Metro.co.uk has reached out to TikTok for comment.
MORE : New Zealand becomes latest country to ban TikTok on government devices
MORE : Which countries have banned TikTok as New Zealand bans it from government phones?