The US government launched a national security investigation into the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok, several media outlets reported on Friday.
The probe will be carried out by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), the New York Times and Reuters news agency reported, citing anonymous sources familiar with the matter.
The government panel reviews acquisitions in the US by foreign companies. In the review, investigators will be looking into the acquisition of TikTok’s predecessor app, the US social media app Musical.ly, by the Beijing-based company ByteDance in 2017.
The video-sharing app is popular with millions of teens and young adults in the US, with around 60% of its monthly users in the US between the ages of 16 and 24. On the app, users share short videos that are often set to music. Most of the videos involve users dancing, lip-syncing, doing pranks or sharing snippets of their daily lives.
TikTok said it could not comment on any ongoing regulatory processes, but said in a statement that it “has made clear that we have no higher priority than earning the trust of users and regulators in the US.”
Concerns over ‘counterintelligence threat’
News of the probe comes after several US lawmakers called for an investigation into TikTok over concerns that the app could be used by China to spy on users, as well as accusations the company is censoring politically sensitive content.
Senator Marco Rubio welcomed the news, saying he’d sent a letter to CFIUS last month asking them to review TikTok.
“Because any platform owned by a company in China which collects massive amounts of data on Americans is a potentially serious threat to our country,” the Republican lawmaker wrote on Twitter.
Last month I asked @USTreasury to conduct a CFIUS review of @tiktok_us. Because any platform owned by a company in #China which collects massive amounts of data on Americans is a potential serious threat to our country.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) November 1, 2019
US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Senator Tom Cotton urged the US intelligence community to open a national security probe into TikTok last week.
In a letter, the senators said TikTok’s owner ByteDance could be forced to share user data with Chinese intelligence. They also suggested the app could be used to influence the upcoming presidential election in 2020.
“With over 110 million downloads in the US alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore,” Schumer and Cotton wrote.
TikTok Denies Influence From China
Last week, TikTok sought to distance itself from Beijing, saying in a statement: “We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government.”
The company said its data centers are located outside of China and that its data is not subject to Chinese law. TikTok also pushed back against claims of censorship, saying that it does not remove content based on “sensitivities related to China.”
In his letter calling for a probe, Rubio said he raised questions about why there were so few videos of the recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on the app.
In recent years, the US government has intervened to break up or block Chinese deals several times in recent years. A Chinese company that owns the gay dating app Grindr reportedly agreed to sell the app earlier this year following a CFIUS review.