Justice Dept. investigates TikTok parent over potential data-gathering issues

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The Justice Department and FBI have been investigating the company that owns TikTok, the popular video application that is coming under increasing criticism from the U.S. government, according to people familiar with the matter.

At issue is whether ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, may have violated any laws by inappropriately gathering the data of some of its users, including journalists who cover technology companies, according to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

It was not clear what potential federal crimes were at issue, but the Justice Department’s fraud section is involved in the investigation, these people said.

Forbes first reported the news.

U.S. security agencies and lawmakers have increasingly complained that the company is too closely aligned with the Chinese government and could use the service to track Americans and push pro-China propaganda.

In December, ByteDance said it fired four employees after an internal investigation found they had accessed data on two journalists. The investigation found that the employees pulled IP addresses and other data in an attempt to identify who might have shared documents with journalists for BuzzFeed News and the Financial Times.

“We have strongly condemned the actions of the individuals found to have been involved, and they are no longer employed at ByteDance,” TikTok spokeswoman Jennifer Banks said Friday in a statement. “Our internal investigation is still ongoing, and we will cooperate with any official investigations when brought to us.”

The revelation comes as the Biden administration has begun to push ByteDance to sell off the popular video-streaming app, whose ties to China have caused bipartisan unease, even though little evidence has emerged that TikTok poses a national security threat. Biden’s push for divestiture could face the same challenges encountered by the Trump administration, which made a similar attempt three years ago — an effort that ultimately failed.

Next week, ByteDance chief executive Shou Zi Chew is expected to testify before Congress. The hearing comes as TikTok has made serious efforts to push back on claims that it poses national security threats and that the company can implement additional transparency and accountability measures.

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