WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is 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 FBI 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 spokesperson had no comment.
Confirmation of the investigation comes as the White House hardens its 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.
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 Joe Biden has said he might support an effort, now working its way through Congress, to ban the app in the United States.
This represents a drastic shift over the past year, when some in the administration were expressing confidence that a compromise could be struck that would allow the company to continue its operations in exchange for major changes to its data security and governance.
TikTok had been hoping that a group of federal agencies known as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, would approve of its plans for operating in the country while remaining under the ownership of ByteDance.
But the No. 2 official at the Justice Department, Lisa Monaco, did not sign off on a 90-page draft agreement, and the Treasury Department, which plays a crucial role in approving deals involving national security risks, expressed skepticism that the potential agreement would resolve national security issues, people with knowledge of the matter said.
The White House now seems to be moving fast in the other direction, with senior officials increasingly viewing a divestment as the only acceptable path forward.
Officials with TikTok, which has a robust public relations and lobbying operation in Washington, said they were weighing their options and expressed disappointment with the pressure to sell.
The company said its security proposal, which involves storing Americans’ data in the United States, offered the best possible protection for users.
“If protecting national security is the objective, divestment doesn’t solve the problem: A change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access,” Maureen Shanahan, a spokesperson for TikTok, said in a statement this week.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, is scheduled to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee next week. He is expected to face questions about the app’s ties to China, as well as concerns that it delivers harmful content to young people.
A spokesperson for TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and referred all questions to ByteDance.
A ByteDance spokesperson did not respond. But she had told Forbes that the company “strongly condemned the actions of the individuals found to have been involved,” and would “cooperate with any official investigations when brought to us.”