Espionage on Campus: Lawmakers Weigh Foreign Actor Threat at Universities

American universities are espionage havens as research and innovative technology secrets are being pilfered and taken home to governments hostile to the U.S. at an alarming rate, according to expert testimony at the House Science, Space and Technology subcommittees on Wednesday.

“Essentially, China steals our fundamental research and quickly capitalizes by commercializing the technology,” said Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-La.), chairman of the Oversight subcommittee, which held the hearing in conjunction with the Research and Technology subcommittee. “Whether physical or cyber security threats, it is clear that our academic institutions are not taking all the necessary steps to adequately protect this vital research.”

Spying at American universities has made headlines in recent days, from the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University no longer hosting or receiving funds from Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes — more than 100 operate in the United States — to the recent Justice Department indictment of nine Iranian nationals who allegedly stole data and intellectual property from 144 U.S. universities as well as 176 universities in 21 foreign countries.

Crane Hassold, director of threat intelligence at IT security provider PhishLabs, identified nearly 800 distinct phishing attacks linked to the Iranian Mabna Institute group, threat actors he dubbed “Silent Librarian” whose operations date back to 2013.

“According to prosecutors, the defendants stole more than 31 terabytes of data from universities, companies and government agencies around the world,” Hassold said. “The cost to the universities alone reportedly amounted to $3.4 billion. The information was used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or sold for profit inside Iran.”

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said that the brazen theft was conducted on behalf of the Iranian government and noted that “nearly $3.5 billion of U.S. research – some of which was funded by American taxpayers – was illegally taken and is now in the hands of a hostile foreign nation.”

“By understanding China’s priorities and the lengths to which it is prepared to go, we can adopt an effective approach. But the first step is recognizing the risks we face,” said Smith, chairman of the full Science, Space and Technology Committee. “The intelligence community has warned about these threats for years, ranging from cyber-attacks to human manipulation to break-ins. We know that foreign agents routinely target American students and educators in their priority areas. Faculty and administrators must be alert and educated to spot the warning signs of foreign operations.”

“But many in academia have been unwilling to accept reality and unwilling to take any defensive measures to protect their researchers’ work, their universities’ scientific assets and taxpayers’ investments,” he added.

Daniel Golden, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and senior editor at ProPublica, is the author of “Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities.”

“Globalization has transformed American universities into a front line for espionage,” Golden testified. “For foreign intelligence services, a university offers a valuable and lightly guarded target. They can exploit the revolving door between academic and government: today’s professor of international relations is tomorrow’s assistant secretary of State. They can recruit naïve students and guide them into the federal agency of their choice.”

Golden said that in 2016, the number of international students at U.S. universities topped 1 million for the first time, almost seven times the total in 1975 and more than double the 2000 figure. Additionally, he said that foreign-born scientists and engineers working at U.S. colleges and universities rose 44 percent in the decade between 2003 and 2013, from 360,000 to 517,000.

“China has these very aggressive Brain Gain programs that provide incentives in the U.S., particularly researchers of Chinese descent to come home with research that they may not have come by honestly, and those programs have not succeeded in recruiting top-notch professors in American universities,” Golden said. “So, they tend to appeal to fringe professors at lesser institutions, maybe they don’t have tenure, and the message to them is, ‘Don’t come home empty-handed.’ It’s kind of an incentive to bring something back with them.”

Oversight Subcommittee Ranking Member Don Beyer (D-Va.) recommended caution, but noted that immigrants to America have won 81 Nobel Prizes in chemistry, medicine and physics between 1960 and 2017.

“The loss of this sort of data can have tremendous economic consequences, endanger our national security and diminish our technological leads in critical technologies,” Beyer said. “What I do not believe we want to do, however, is pull the welcome mat out from under the more than one million foreign students who come to America to study every year, contributing more than $36 billion to our economy annually, creating hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs and contributing to America’s academic leadership.”

Michael Wessel, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, testified that China would do anything possible to be a global technology leader.

“China is committed to achieving its goals and will engage in legal means if possible, and illegal means if necessary, to achieve these goals,” Wessel said. “The size of the foreign student population in the U.S. is significant. In the 2016-17 academic year, there were 1,078,822 international students studying in the U.S. China was the largest place of origin for these students, accounting for 32.5 percent of the total [roughly 350,000].”

Multimedia journalist James Cullum has reported for over a decade to newspapers, magazines and websites in the D.C. metro area. He excels at finding order in chaotic environments, from slave liberations in South Sudan to the halls of the power in Washington, D.C.

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