Intelligence agencies warn universities of China threat

Intelligence agencies have warned universities in the United Kingdom to put national interests ahead of their own commercial interest in recruiting students from China.

They are also pressing university leaders to ensure research and funding partnerships do not compromise academic freedom or make campuses vulnerable to espionage or theft, according to a report in The Times.

The UK’s domestic security service, MI5, and its electronic intelligence headquarters, GCHQ, say the recruitment to UK universities of students from China, particularly postgraduates, is raising the risk of China stealing research and intellectual property from universities and of university computer systems being compromised.

The agencies have launched a campaign to warn of the dangers to national security of universities relying on Chinese money and students, particularly postgraduates, The Times reported. More international students are recruited to UK universities from China than from any other country, with more than 100,000 students currently studying at UK institutions.

Many universities rely on high numbers of international students being recruited to increase university revenue, with international students paying higher fees than domestic students and postgraduates paying up to £50,000 (US$64,700) a year in some subjects.

The five universities with the most Chinese students are Sheffield, followed by Manchester, Cardiff, Liverpool and UCL. At Sheffield 26.5% of postgraduate students (2,625) and 16.1% of undergraduate students (3,560) are from China; while UCL has the highest number of postgraduates with 2,990, closely followed by Manchester with 2,920.

According to The Times, an estimated 500 Chinese military scientists have been among the students recruited over the past decade and they included individuals who worked on technologies linked to jet aircraft, supercomputers, missiles and even microscopically thin film that could be used to disguise tanks and ships.

GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI), which reports to MI5, are pressing university leaders to make sure that funding partnerships with Beijing do not compromise academic freedom or make universities an “easy route for a hostile nation”, The Times reported.

A statement on CPNI’s website warns universities: “Hostile state actors are targeting UK universities to steal personal data, research data and intellectual property, and this could be used for their own military, commercial and authoritarian interests.

“Individual researchers may be targeted by a hostile state actor, but equally you may also be targeted by an academic institution to undertake research which is of strategic benefit to that country.”

CPNI defines a hostile state as “one whose democratic and ethical values are different from our own and whose strategic intent is hostile to the UK”.

It warns that hostile states seek opportunities to increase their own economic advantage, in particular to develop a research and innovation base to increase military and technological advantage over other countries; prioritise preventing internal dissent and political opposition; and seek to deploy technological and military advantages against their own people in order to maintain the stability of the regime.

It says the UK is a “high priority espionage target” and that whereas in the past hostile states sought political and military intelligence, today the targets are broader.

“They now include communications technologies, IT, energy, scientific research, defence, aviation, electronics and many other fields.”

Protecting research is a critical issue globally, given that one in five of the world’s international scientific papers are produced via international collaborations. More than half of UK research is a product of international partnerships and 42% of postgraduates and 31% of staff in universities are from outside of the UK.

China is a particular threat because under a National Intelligence Law passed in 2017 Chinese intelligence agencies are allowed to compel Chinese organisations and individuals to carry out work on their behalf and provide support, cooperation and assistance on request.

CPNI says: “This may affect the level of control you have over any data, information and research assets that you share with Chinese individuals and organisations, especially if your research is in an area that is of interest to the Chinese state.”

But Russia also provides a specific threat via its requirement for all communication service providers to install equipment to enable the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) to monitor communications.

The FSB is able and legally allowed to monitor text messages, voice calls, social media, web browsing and metadata in communications going into, out of or within Russia – without informing the communications service provider.

Advice on protecting research

The CPNI offers practical advice to researchers on how to protect research, manage risk and stay safe. This includes dealing with issues of due diligence, conflict of interest and segregation or control of access both physically and online.

For instance, to be cyber secure requires researchers to work with their IT department to ensure access to sensitive data is controlled and that collaborative platforms are secure; having adequate security arrangements to monitor and deal with internal and external threats to security; and developing an understanding of potential cyber risks associated with partner organisations or service providers.

CPNI provides a list of resources helpful in assessing potential risk when choosing a research partner, including the US export control list, UN sanctions list, country corruption index and the Human Freedom Index.

It warns that hostile countries may misuse research to coerce their own people, citing the case of an unnamed country.

International concerns

The UK is one of a number of countries where security services have recently raised fears about the impact of recruitment of Chinese students and researchers and of research partnerships with Chinese universities.

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

In February Wray told the US Senate Intelligence Committee that Chinese intelligence operatives may be working at top universities as “professors, scientists [and] students”.

In August the Australian federal government announced that it was to establish a new university ‘foreign interference taskforce’ to protect sensitive research from foreign governments. Australian Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said the taskforce would aim to prevent and respond to cyber-security incidents “and protect Australia’s intellectual property and research”.

In Australia seven universities relied on Chinese students for between 13% and 23% of their revenue and approximately 10% of all students attending Australian universities and more than 40% of all onshore international students came from China.

The report in The Times is not the first time China has been accused of spying in UK universities. In 2011 the inventor Sir James Dyson alleged that Chinese students were infiltrating UK universities to steal technological and scientific secrets and said he had evidence that bugs were left by postgraduate students to ensure the thefts carried on after they had left the country.

He told The Times at the time that universities were “being used by foreign countries and foreign companies”.

A paper published by the Centre for Independent Studies, Australia, in August noted that the number of Chinese students studying abroad globally had grown six-fold in the past 20 years and the country was consistently the largest source of international students.