It could not have happened at a worse time for TikTok, the fourth most popular social media platform in America. Just days before TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was grilled before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, with calls echoing off the walls of the hearing chamber to ban TikTok in the U.S. market for scraping Americans’ data for China, news broke that the Department of Justice and FBI opened an investigation into the social media platform’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance. Investigators want to know if ByteDance used the app to track the location and movements of American journalists.
According to Emily Baker-White, a Forbes reporter who was herself surveilled by ByteDance, the department and U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia have hit the Chinese firm with subpoenas about its purported surveillance of U.S. journalists.
If this story holds up, it will likely kill any serious consideration by the U.S. government of the proposal advanced by TikTok to compartmentalize its data inside the United States. As a series of leaks from inside the company show, for all practical purposes TikTok seems to have little independence from its owners. The use of TikTok to surveil American journalists would be an astonishing show of bad faith at a time when the company is pledging transparency and accountability.
In the Thursday hearing, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) asked: “Today, do ByteDance employees in Beijing have access to American data?” Chew replied: “We rely on global interoperability, and have employees in China, so yes, the Chinese engineers do have access to global data.” He said data stored in the United States and Singapore is accessed in China only for “business purposes.”
As this story unfolds, we look forward to learning what Chinese intelligence believed was so important that it had to surveil U.S. journalists at this sensitive time. Were they following reporters who were speaking to dissidents or whistleblowers inside the company?
TikTok’s purported intrusion into journalists’ locations should remind us that confidentiality for sources is the lifeblood of journalism. Without being able to protect a source, journalists would struggle to reveal malfeasance in government and business. The TikTok story should prompt civil libertarians to double down on the need to protect journalists at home – as well as their sources – from the prying eyes of U.S. prosecutors.
As Members of Congress debate a ban of TikTok, we recommend that they also debate and pass the PRESS Act, which would bar prosecutors, except in emergency national security circumstances, from requiring the production of the notes and sources of journalists in court. This is a practice that has worked well in 49 states.
While there is a big difference between spying on journalists and using lawful domestic means to reveal their sources, the need to protect the independence of a free and unfettered press is unchanged.