ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, is facing increased scrutiny as the FBI and Justice Department (DOJ) investigate the company’s alleged efforts to spy on US-based journalists. The DOJ Criminal Division, Fraud Section, is collaborating with the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia to subpoena information about how ByteDance used TikTok to access journalists’ locations and other consumer data.
This development follows a report that the Treasury’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) demanded TikTok’s divestment from ByteDance after two years of negotiations. In addition, the company reportedly fired four employees who accessed the personal information of two US-based journalists. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) also sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, warning about a whistleblower’s testimony concerning U.S. consumers’ data being easily accessible to members of the Chinese Communist Party on ByteDance’s payroll.
BAN TIKTOK! It's anti-American; and also a Chinese spy tool. https://t.co/r5GwxXMDqb
— Javier Labbe 🇺🇲 (@javilabbe) March 8, 2023
A former ByteDance employee has alleged to Hawley’s office that TikTok’s access controls on U.S. user data are much weaker than the company claims. In addition, according to the whistleblower, TikTok exaggerates its separation from ByteDance, relies on proprietary Chinese software that could have backdoors, and employs tools that enable employees to switch between U.S. and Chinese user data easily. These allegations contradict public statements made by TikTok and ByteDance executives.
Hawley has referred to the whistleblower’s claims as “deeply concerning” and deserving of an investigation by CFIUS. TikTok has responded to the allegations, stating that the tools described in Sen. Hawley’s letter are primarily analytic tools that do not independently grant direct access to data. TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter has also emphasized that neither TikTok nor ByteDance engineers can access protected U.S. user datasets stored in the Oracle cloud.
TikTok has consistently maintained that it keeps U.S. user data secure and is committed to a strong CFIUS deal. While Sen. Hawley supports an outright ban on the app, others in Congress have proposed less direct approaches that could allow the popular video app to continue operating in the U.S.
Amid these investigations, ByteDance has spent over $13 million on lobbying since 2019 and hired several dozen lobbyists to save face. Additionally, TikTok recently employed a public relations firm with ties to President Joe Biden to ease scrutiny over its connections to the Chinese Communist Party.
The future remains uncertain as it is still being determined whether the whistleblower will provide further details of their allegations or testify before Congress. However, Sen. Hawley’s office remains committed to protecting the anonymity of whistleblowers and believes that these claims warrant investigation by CFIUS.