Chinese-owned TikTok using DHS programs to bring foreign workers to U.S.

FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers this week that he's 'extremely concerned' about TikTok's operations in the U.S. as a potential tool of the Chinese government.

Updated: November 16, 2022 - 12:33pm

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ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns the video platform TikTok, is increasingly bringing foreign nationals to work in the U.S. through foreign worker programs overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, according to the Center for Immigration Studies.

This year alone, ByteDance was employing 579 foreign workers through the H-1B program, an increase from previous years, wrote Jon Feere, the center's director of investigations, in a new report.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan center – which says it "seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted – also obtained information through a Freedom of Information Act request showing ByteDance has hired more foreign workers through the controversial Optional Practical Training program.

That program allows foreign nationals on foreign student visas to work for up to six years beyond graduation.

"ByteDance executives say TikTok stores all U.S. user data in Virginia and Singapore and that the TikTok organization in the United States is independent from China," wrote Feere.

"The claim of independence is difficult to square with the fact that citizens of China are working for the company inside the United States. These foreign workers maintain their Chinese citizenship and are to return back to the homeland when their visas expire."

As of August, a total of 300 employees of TikTok and ByteDance, including high-level managers, have worked for Chinese government-controlled news media, and some continue to work with Chinese media, according to a Forbes analysis.

Feere noted the majority of ByteDance foreign workers in the H-1B and OPT programs are from China and India, although there's no publicly available data on the nationalities.

Arkansas GOP Sen. Tom Cotton has sent a letter earlier this week to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas asking for specific information about the nationality of ByteDance employees obtained through the H-1B program.

The letter and the center's report come as U.S. officials continue to express concern about TikTok posing a national security threat. Of particular concern is the prospect of the application's extensive data harvesting being accessible by the Chinese government.

FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers Tuesday that he's "extremely concerned" about TikTok's operations in the U.S.  

"We do have national security concerns at least from the FBI's end about TikTok," Wray told members of the House Homeland Security Committee in a hearing about worldwide threats.

"They include the possibility that the Chinese government could use it to control data collection on millions of users. Or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations if they so choose. Or to control software on millions of devices, which gives it opportunity to potentially technically compromise personal devices."

The Federal Communications Commission has called TikTok "a sophisticated surveillance tool" that "poses an unacceptable national security risk," while the U.S. military has banned personnel from using it.

A former Pentagon official who served in the Biden administration recently joined TikTok as a communications director.