Was TikTok spying on its users? That’s what the Justice Department wants to know and it is now investigating the surveillance of American citizens, including several journalists who cover the tech industry, by the Chinese company that owns TikTok, according to three people familiar with the matter.
The investigation, which began late last year, appears to be tied to the admission in December by the company, ByteDance, that its employees had inappropriately obtained the data of American TikTok users, including that of two reporters and a few of their associates.
The department’s criminal division, the F.B.I. and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia are investigating ByteDance, which is based in Beijing and has close ties with China’s government, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
A Justice Department spokesman had no comment.
Confirmation of the investigation comes as the White House adopts a more aggressive stance toward forcing the company to address national security concerns about TikTok. They include fears that China might be using the popular video service to gather data about or spy on Americans, undermine democratic institutions and foster internet addictions among young people.
This new move further deepens the acrimony that has escalated between the two countries especially since the incident of the spy balloon that flew over the US and was then shot down over water.
TikTok disclosed this week that the Biden administration had asked its owner to sell the app — which is already being blocked from government phones in the U.S., Europe and more than two dozen states — or face a possible nationwide ban.
The federal criminal inquiry was reported earlier by Forbes magazine. The journalist who wrote the story said she was one of the people whose data had been tracked by the company.
The ByteDance employees implicated in the surveillance, who were later fired, were trying to find the sources of suspected leaks of internal conversations and business documents to journalists. They gained access to the IP addresses and other data of the reporters and people they were connected to via their TikTok accounts.
Two of the employees were based in China. The company said it was making changes to prevent such breaches in the future.
But the company’s reassurances have done little to quell growing demands by politicians on both sides of the aisle to block or ban the app. President Biden has said he might support an effort, now working its way through Congress, to ban the app in the U.S.
A year ago, there was hope that a compromise could be reached that would allow the company to continue its operations in exchange for major changes to its data security and governance. Now that hope has been shattered as senior officials increasingly view a divestment as the only acceptable path forward.