Months before the US government demanded ByteDance’s divestiture of TikTok, the Justice Department’s Criminal Division subpoenaed the app’s Chinese parent company, a source says.
The FBI and Justice Department are investigating events that led TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, to use the app to monitor American journalists, including this reporter, according to sources familiar with the departments’ actions.
According to a source in a position to know, the DOJ Criminal Division, Fraud Section, working alongside the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, subpoenaed information from ByteDance regarding efforts by its employees to access to location information of US journalists or other private user data using the TikTok app. According to two sources, the FBI conducted surveillance-related interviews. ByteDance’s use of the app to monitor US citizens was reported for the first time by Forbes in October, and confirmed by an internal company investigation in December.
“We strongly condemn the actions of those involved, and they are no longer employed at ByteDance. Our internal investigation is still ongoing, and we will cooperate with any official investigation brought before us,” a ByteDance spokeswoman said. Jennifer. Banks.TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, the DOJ and the FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This is the first federal government report investigating ByteDance’s surveillance practices. It is unclear whether the DOJ subpoena is related to the FBI interviews.
The DOJ and FBI are both part of the Interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which this week required whether ByteDance divests TikTok or faces a nationwide ban on the app. For several years, the CFIUS has tried to negotiate a national security contract with TikTok intended to ease fears that it could be used by the Chinese government to access valuable private information about US citizens or manipulate US civic discourse. (Disclosure: In a past life, I held political positions at Facebook and Spotify.)
The divestment request marks a dramatic defeat for TikTok, which promised to spend $1.5 billion on a set of data sequestration plans, known as Project Texas, which he hoped would allow ByteDance to continue owning TikTok. Under the Texas project, TikTok would host US user data in national servers run by a US-based team subject to government oversight. However, ByteDance’s confirmation that it was monitoring journalists appeared to contradict promises it made to the US government as part of the proposal.
The request also comes amid heightened concerns about TikTok on Capitol Hill. In December, a bipartisan coalition began push for a full ban enforcement and legislators outrage expressed corporate surveillance of journalists. At the time, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D.-Illinois) said Forbes there was “genuine bipartisan concern” about TikTok, adding that “concern might be an understatement”. Last week, a group of 12 other senators introduced a bill it would make it easier for President Biden to enact a ban. The White House approved the bill, asking that Congress “act quicklyto skip it.
TikTok said neither divestment nor a ban would address national security concerns raised by skeptics in Washington. Instead, he urged CFIUS to accept a proposal, based on Project Texas, that would allow ByteDance to continue owning TikTok. But the CFIUS divestiture request seems to suggest that the proposal failed to convince the government.
TikTok began work on Project Texas in 2021, in response to concerns first raised during the Trump administration. The project remained secret until BuzzFeed News revealed its existence in early 2022, and it came under regulatory investigation after the same outlet received leaked audio demo that the data of US TikTok users had been repeatedly accessed by ByteDance employees in China.
Report from both BuzzFeed News And Forbes showed that there was little to no functional separation between TikTok and ByteDance. A September 2022 report from Forbes revealed that TikTok executives were often expected to take direction from ByteDance executives.
In July 2022, BuzzFeed News also reported that ByteDance pushed pro-China messaging to US users of another (now defunct) app. In December 2022, Forbes find that Chinese state media used TikTok accounts (which at the time did not contain tags revealing they were run by state media) to attack some politicians ahead of the midterm elections . The same week, FBI Director Christopher Wray expressed concern that the Chinese government could use TikTok for influence operations.
In November, Forbes reported on an internal ByteDance fraud risk assessment from 2021, which warned: “Unless ByteDance makes substantial, sustained, and timely investments in its anti-fraud programs,” the company could be subject to massive fines and lose the ability to operate in the United States. . The assessment further warned of “criminal charges against ByteDance executives and officials (even if they did not actively participate in misconduct)”.