The admissions from TikTok and ByteDance, confirming previous Forbes reporting, come amid a groundswell of legislative alarm about the app.
Legislators in Washington reacted with outrage to admissions by TikTok and its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, that they improperly used the video-sharing app to spy on reporters covering the company.
Forbes first reported the existence of the surveillance scheme, which targeted three Forbes reporters, in October. At the time, TikTok did not deny the report, but tweeted that the app had “never been used to ‘target’ any members of the U.S. government, activists, public figures or journalists.” TikTok and ByteDance now admit that this was false.
After the October report, Republican members of Congress James Comer and Cathy McMorris Rodgers requested documentation from TikTok and ByteDance regarding the targets and purpose of the surveillance.
On Thursday, McMorris Rodgers tweeted, “TikTok has placed the safety and privacy of Americans in jeopardy. They have gone on record numerous times claiming that they do not share Americans’ data with China. We know that is a lie, and we now know the list has grown to include U.S. journalists. Accountability is coming.”
In a statement to Forbes, Senator Ron Wyden (D-WA) endorsed those concerns: “Using customer data to spy on journalists and employees is a scandal that casts doubt on every promise TikTok has made about protecting personal information. Sadly, it’s not the first time a tech company has abused the massive store of information it holds about its customers. As long as corporations have access to detailed data about their users’ movements, personal contacts and interests, companies and governments will be tempted to misuse it.”
This scandal could not have come at a worse time for TikTok, which is currently negotiating a national security contract with the multi-agency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to address national security concerns raised by the app. Although TikTok was reportedly close to a deal with CFIUS this past summer, national security agencies and the DOJ have expressed increasing concern about a deal that would allow ByteDance to continue to own TikTok. Meanwhile, legislators have begun moving forward with their own sanctions of TikTok, including a unanimously passed Senate bill to ban the app on government devices, and a bipartisan, bicameral proposal that would ban the app for all users in the United States. (Disclosure: In a previous life, I held policy positions at Facebook and Spotify.)
Many of the concerns raised by lawmakers and government leaders about TikTok have focused specifically on its potential use as a surveillance tool. FBI Director Christopher Wray spoke earlier this month about how the PRC government interrogated the parents of a Chinese student in the U.S. who posted a TikTok critical of the Chinese government, and Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) told Forbes that our October report on surveillance contributed to his decision to co-sponsor a bill to ban the app.
In response to TikTok’s and ByteDance’s admissions yesterday, Krishnamoorthi said, “It’s deeply disturbing to learn that ByteDance weaponized TikTok to track journalists who were investigating the company, confirming some of our fears of how the app could be misused.”
Mike Gallagher (R-WI), Krishnamoorthi’s co-sponsor on the ban bill, issued a statement calling the conduct egregious, saying: “TikTok has repeatedly told Congress and the American public that it does not share U.S. user data with its Chinese owner ByteDance and specifically claimed it has never targeted individual Americans. But reports out just today reveal that this was a lie and that ByteDance employees accessed the location data of U.S. journalists who wrote critical stories about TikTok.”
Both Congressmen called on their colleagues to join across the aisle in an effort to ban the app —calls that were echoed by bipartisan leadership in the senate.
Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) said, “This new development reinforces serious concerns” about the TikTok. “The DoJ has also been promising for over a year that they are looking into ways to protect U.S. user data from Bytedance and the CCP — it’s time to come forward with that solution or Congress could soon be forced to step in,” he continued.
Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn), who was the lead author of a letter to TikTok in June about concerns over the company’s relationship with China, told Forbes TikTok “cannot be trusted.” “It’s clear they are desperate to get their hands on any U.S. user data they can and deposit it directly into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party,” she said in a statement. “The Biden administration has the authority to crack down on this violation of privacy and national security threat – and they must take action immediately.”
Marco Rubio (R-FL), who co-chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee with Warner and is a Senate sponsor of the Gallagher-Krishnamoorthi bill, also spoke up about the spying incident. “No one should be surprised or fooled by ByteDance’s public apology,” he said. “Every day it becomes more clear that we need to ban TikTok.”