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The Biden administration has recently ramped up pressure on TikTok over national security concerns stemming from its ties to China, and apparently the Justice Department and the FBI are also applying pressure of their own.
Forbes first reported that the agencies are actively investigating ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company. The investigation was reportedly initiated after some employees leveraged the app to spy on U.S.-based journalists — an incident corroborated by an internal investigation late last year.
Now, The New York Times and other outlets have matched Forbes’ reporting, confirming that the Fraud Section of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division is coordinating with the FBI and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia to investigate the breach of user privacy.
In the internal investigation, ByteDance found that some employees accessed data on American journalists’ TikTok accounts in order to investigate who at the company was leaking information to reporters. Of employees involved in the incident — who were fired after the fact — two were part of the company’s operations in China.
The latest revelations come a week before TikTok’s CEO is scheduled to testify before Congress — an appearance that’s likely to be met with deep suspicion, even by tech hearing standards. In the days leading up to the hearing, the Biden administration has stiffened its posture toward the company considerably, threatening to ban the app in the U.S. if TikTok’s Chinese owners don’t sell the company.
TikTok rebuffed the White House’s new demand for divestiture, arguing that selling the company won’t address the government’s concerns. TikTok pointed to its own proposed solution instead, though convincing the U.S. government that a China-based company operating in the U.S. should be allowed to self-regulate is a difficult sell. To mitigate concerns about the app’s relationship with China, TikTok launched a $1.5 billion initiative known as “Project Texas” that would store U.S. user data domestically and subject the company to an auditing process conducted by American tech giant Oracle.