As if TikTok’s problems couldn’t get any worse, the FBI and DOJ are investigating its parent company for surveilling Forbes journalists.
TikTok is owned by China-based ByteDance. The company is under pressure around the globe as one jurisdiction after another bans TikTok from government devices over privacy concerns.
One of the most egregious privacy and security violations involved ByteDance’s admission that it used TikTok to surveil Forbes journalists, tracking their locations. The admission has sparked an investigation by the FBI and DOJ, according to Forbes:
According to a source in position to know, the DOJ Criminal Division, Fraud Section, working alongside the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, has subpoenaed information from ByteDance regarding efforts by its employees to access U.S. journalists’ location information or other private user data using the TikTok app. According to two sources, the FBI has been conducting interviews related to the surveillance. ByteDance’s use of the app to surveil U.S. citizens was first reported by Forbes in October, and confirmed by an internal company investigation in December.
At the time of the admission, ByteDance executives expressed their disapproval, with the executive responsible for the actions, Chris Lepitak, being fired. His direct superior who reported to the CEO, Song Ye, also resigned.
“I was deeply disappointed when I was notified of the situation… and I’m sure you feel the same,” CEO Rubo Liang wrote in an internal email shared with Forbes at the time. “The public trust that we have spent huge efforts building is going to be significantly undermined by the misconduct of a few individuals. … I believe this situation will serve as a lesson to us all.”
“It is standard practice for companies to have an internal audit group authorized to investigate code of conduct violations,” TikTok General Counsel Erich Andersen wrote in a second email. “However, in this case individuals misused their authority to obtain access to TikTok user data.”
ByteDance told Forbes it would cooperate with any official investigation:
“We have strongly condemned the actions of the individuals found to have been involved, and they are no longer employed at ByteDance. Our internal investigation is still ongoing, and we will cooperate with any official investigations when brought to us,” said ByteDance spokesperson Jennifer Banks. TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.
The news comes at a time when TikTok is facing its most daunting challenges. In addition to being banned from government devices in the US, EU, UK, and Canada, the Biden administration has told ByteDance that TikTok will face a nationwide ban unless the company divests from TikTok.