FBI chief warns universities to guard against China threat

Christopher Wray, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), has warned universities in the United States to think more carefully about the “generational threats” posed by China, including its attempts to “steal innovation” via graduate students and researchers.

But he also warned that other countries are seeking to use academics and researchers to steal cutting-edge research and technology.

Wray, speaking in discussion with Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), on 26 April about new types of threats, such as cybercrime blended with espionage, focused in particular on the “multi-layered threat posed by China”.

“We still confront traditional espionage threats – you know, dead drops, covers, things like that – but economic espionage dominates our counterintelligence programme today.

“More than ever, the adversaries’ targets are our nation’s assets – our information and ideas, our innovation, our research and development, our technology. And no country poses a broader, more severe intelligence collection threat than China,” he said.

‘Stealing innovation’

Wray argued that China has pioneered a “societal approach” to stealing innovation any way it can from a wide array of businesses, universities and organisations.

“They’re doing it through Chinese intelligence services, through state-owned enterprises, through ostensibly private companies, through graduate students and researchers, through a variety of actors all working on behalf of China,” he said.

“At the FBI we have economic espionage investigations that almost invariably lead back to China in nearly all of our 56 field offices, and they span just about every industry or sector.”

He accused China of violating the global rules-based order and of being determined to “steal its way up the economic ladder”. He said China is following a formal plan set out in five-year increments to achieve dominance in critical areas.

“Overlaying all these threats is our ever-expanding use of technology: next-generation telecommunications networks like 5G, the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning, cryptocurrencies, unmanned aerial systems, deep fakes, all sorts of stuff,” he said.

“Taken together, these could be called generational threats because they’re going to shape our nation’s future. They’ll shape the world around us. They’re going to determine where we stand and what we look like 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 50 years from now.”

Wray said the types of activity go way beyond fair market competition, are illegal, and are a threat to economic security and therefore to national security.

Targeting academia

While most of the US’s critical infrastructure and intellectual property is in the hands of the private sector, nation-state actors are also targeting academia, including professors, research scientists and graduate students. “They seek our cutting-edge research, our advanced technology and our world-class equipment and expertise,” he said.

He said across all sectors, including the academic sector, “people are waking up and realising that [the threat from China] is a threat that needs to be taken seriously”.

Although Confucius Institutes, based at US universities, are part of China’s soft power strategy and are “certainly something we’re concerned about”, the threats of economic espionage from China are of even more concern.

Wray said the FBI and its partners counter nation-state threats using a wide range of tools, from criminal charges and civil injunctions to economic sanctions, entity listings and visa revocations.

It also recognises the need to create mechanisms for organisations and companies to “share information with us so that we have a better understanding of what you’re seeing, what you’re worried about”.

He thinks the academic sector needs to be much more sophisticated and thoughtful about how others may exploit the very open – and revered – collaborative research environment in the US.

But he is encouraged by the number of universities around the country that are taking “very thoughtful, responsible steps to make sure that they’re not being abused, and that their information, proprietary research, confidential information isn’t stolen, which is happening all over the country”.

When Haass raised the issue of visa decisions involving academics and researchers from China who are not in artificial intelligence, but rather things like international relations, Wray said he has seen “many instances” in which the visa process, which he agreed is very important to ensure an open and collaborative research environment, is being “abused and exploited”.

“And in those instances where we have information that exposes that abuse, we want to share it with the right people so they can make the right decisions. And as I said, I think that’s starting to happen more and more often, and I think you can expect to see that happening more and more often.”