TikTok, whose parent company ByteDance is controlled by communist China, is reportedly under federal criminal investigation for surveilling U.S. citizens.
The news comes as U.S. lawmakers released bipartisan legislation earlier this month that would allow the U.S. to ban the app. The Biden administration has stated that it supports the legislation.
Forbes reported that the FBI, Department of Justice Criminal Division, Fraud Section, and U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia opened the criminal investigation over TikTok’s spying on American journalists.
Prosecutors have subpoenaed ByteDance over “efforts by its employees to access U.S. journalists’ location information or other private user data using the TikTok app.”
Forbes was the first to report that the Beijing-based company was surveilling U.S. journalists, and later reported that TikTok admitted that it happened.
TikTok General Counsel Erich Andersen wrote in an internal company email obtained by Forbes that “in this case individuals misused their authority to obtain access to TikTok user data.”
ByteDance spokesperson Jennifer Banks confirmed to the publication that the spying did occur. “We have strongly condemned the actions of the individuals found to have been involved, and they are no longer employed at ByteDance,” she said. “Our internal investigation is still ongoing, and we will cooperate with any official investigations when brought to us.”
The Biden administration demanded this week that ByteDance sell the vertical video application or face an outright ban in the United States.
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The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a board composed of nine cabinet-level officials who weigh the national security implications of international investments, recently ordered ByteDance to sell the platform, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal released on Wednesday. The company vowed to spend $1.5 billion to protect American user data and ensure that Chinese officials could not access the information.
FBI Director Chris Wray stunned U.S. senators last week during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing when he revealed the capabilities that the app gives communist China.
In response to a line of questioning from ranking member Marco Rubio (R-FL), Wray said that communist China can use TikTok to control data on millions of users, to control the software on millions of devices, and that they can use it to drive narratives to pit Americans against each other.
Wray then warned that not only can China use TikTok to control narratives in the U.S., but also that U.S. officials are “not sure that we would see many of the outward signs of it happening if it was happening.”
“And I think the most fundamental piece that cuts across every one of those risks and threats that you mentioned that I think Americans need to understand is that something that’s very sacred in our country, that difference between the private sector and the public sector, that’s a line that is non-existent in the way that CCP operates,” Wray said.
Rubio then noted the differences in what users in China see on TikTok as opposed to what users in the U.S. see on TikTok. “For example, in the U.S. kids are being encouraged to choke themselves out, we’ve had kids die,” Rubio noted. “In China, they’re encouraged to focus on math and science and building the country.”
Wray agreed with Rubio’s assessment that the “poison” that China is pumping into the feeds of U.S. users is one of the many ways that China is using the app to weaken and damage the U.S.
Ben Zeisloft contributed to this report.