Research theft: The tough job of safeguarding universities

The memo titled “Guidance on Contact with CSIS [Canadian Security Intelligence Service]” sent by the University of Waterloo (UW) in southwestern Ontario, Canada, to its researchers at the end of March alarmed David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

While the memo did not indicate which disciplines CSIS was interested in, the euphemism “high-priority research” was understood to mean science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

CSIS agents, the memo states, “may be concerned that you could be the target of a foreign state or entity, or they may have questions about some aspects of your activities”.

But the memo makes clear: “You do not have a legal obligation to talk to a CSIS officer”; you are not required to “speak with the officer immediately, or at the place where they approached you”.

“If agents appear at your place of residence, you can ask them to reschedule the meeting to your workplace.” After helpfully urging researchers to “remain calm, polite and ... truthful” in their statements, the memo ends by asserting the university’s rights: “You must not consent to a search of University of Waterloo property without authorisation from the University of Waterloo.”

Were CSIS to want to conduct an on-campus search, researchers were told to contact Justin Nankivell, director of research security, office of the vice-president, research and international.

Robinson’s concern was not with the content of UW’s memo. “The advice Waterloo gave its professors is correct. There’s no obligation for you to speak with a CSIS agent,” he said.

Rather, what troubled Robinson was the prospect of CSIS agents showing up unannounced at a professor’s office or a professor’s home (as has happened in at least one instance that he was not at liberty to discuss).

The first case of office visits, he said, violates the letter of the sixty-year-old Pearson-Laskin Accord between the Canadian Association of University Teachers and the federal government, while the second – home visits – violates its spirit.

The accord was a response to a number of unwarranted investigations of professors by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in the 1950s and early 1960s (during Canada’s version of the McCarthyite ‘Red Scare’ that gripped the United States).

The accord is named after then prime minister Lester B Pearson and University of Toronto law professor Bora Laskin, who was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1970 and between 1973 and 1984 was the nation’s chief justice. Under the accord, the government of Canada agreed to refrain from “general RCMP surveillance of university campuses”.

Further, it pledged not to use informers or listening devices “except where the solicitor general has cause to believe that something specific is happening beyond the free flow of ideas on university campuses”. The principles of the accord have been reiterated over the years, including in the 1990s when CSIS was established.

“Essentially what the government agreed to was that the security services could not enter campuses without first contacting the administration and, secondly, the faculty association because of the sensitivity around academic freedom,” said Robinson.

“What we’re seeing now is that the accord is not really being paid attention to and is being willfully ignored. For example, I’ve been contacted by academics who say, ‘I got called by a CSIS agent who wants to go for coffee; what should I do?’

“What we are seeing in Canada, as we’re seeing in other jurisdictions as well, appears to be a new kind of Cold War as the government is taking actions to limit academic exchanges. Although the government doesn’t mention China in any of the procedures or regulations, that’s clearly what the target is. Universities are now being asked to scrutinise any partnerships with Chinese entities and Chinese academics.”

An area of interest

CSIS’s assumed interest in speaking with researchers at UW follows from two facts: the university’s leadership position in a number of STEM fields, and the efforts of countries, such as China, to gain access to this research by, for example, suborning partnerships or intellectual property theft.

“We are working in fields like AI [artificial intelligence], a variety of engineering disciplines, software development, cybersecurity, quantum [computing], the list goes on,” said Nick Manning, UW’s associate vice-president for communications.

“These are all fields and areas of research at the cutting edge [and which are] a great advantage in the knowledge economy. So it stands to reason, I think, that Waterloo is an area of interest for foreign governments.”

The disciplines Manning noted are among the 14 flagged by the government of Canada’s National Security Guidelines for Research Partnerships.

The threat of China

Manning did not name China as the key threat. By contrast, both defence and security analyst Wesley Wark and Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, who served as assistant deputy minister at the Department of Finance, Natural Resources Canada, and as executive vice president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and is now a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy, singled out Xi Jinping’s regime.

In the mid-2010s, Xi began changing the Middle Kingdom’s policy of “open relationships with institutions in the West” to one that “involves aspects of intellectual property theft and what we would understand as espionage”, said Wark, a senior fellow at the Waterloo, Ontario-based Centre for International Governance Innovation, and a retired professor from the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, as well as a former member of Canada’s Advisory Council on National Security.

Beijing’s “Strategy of Innovation-Driven Development” (2016), McCuaig-Johnston writes in Canadian Technology Joint Ventures in China: Assessing the Risks (2020), enunciates a policy of integrating “military and civilian technology development” and established the National Commission for Civilian and Military Development, chaired by Xi himself.

Two years later, Beijing announced the “Measures for the Administration of Scientific Data” that restricted export of such data even when it was “developed with foreign partners”, writes McCuaig-Johnston.

In 2020, Xi’s government restricted foreign investment in more than 25 sensitive areas including: rare earth and radioactive mineral exploration, ocean mapping, news publishing, film production and distribution, humanities and social science research, cultural stories and performance groups.

The day after I interviewed McCuaig-Johnston, China announced the new “Counter-espionage Law of the PRC (2023 ed)” that declares in Article 2 that “counter-espionage efforts are to uphold the centralised and unified leadership of the Party centre [and] adhere to the holistic view of national security”.

Article 4 broadens the definition of espionage to “activities instigated or funded by foreign institutions, organisations and individuals other than espionage organisations and their representatives”, which could include both Western companies and universities.

Xi’s policies, Wark explained, show that today’s geopolitical environment differs greatly from that of a decade or two ago. “Increasingly, interactions between Western countries and authoritarian regimes like [those of] Russia and China are closer to what they were in the Cold War when they were regarded as adversarial regimes that posed threats to Canada’s national interest and security.”

When I asked Wark what research China was particularly interested in, he mentioned several: satellite system capabilities, artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

“From a national security perspective, artificial intelligence has to do with capacity for data valuation storage, issues around encryption. When you are sharing advances in AI, what you could be contributing to with research partnerships with non-friendly regimes is a vastly increased capacity on their part to conduct their own national security operations globally to engage in intellectual property theft, etc, and to better use satellite imagery.”

Quantum computing, Wark continued, potentially undermines all existing encryption methods.

Drawing on her decades of experience facilitating academic and economic exchanges with China and her more recent work sounding the alarm about how China manipulates both business and academic partnerships, McCuaig-Johnston told me about “dual use” technology, such as metallurgy, that can be used for both civilian and military projects.

“It’s not just picking off the shelf something that could have a military application,” she said. “It’s funnelling a whole raft of different types of research into a screening by military researchers at the National University of Defense Technology.”

Why universities are vulnerable

Conscious of the universities’ and professors’ sensitivities around academic freedom, the Canadian government has largely left it to the universities themselves to put in place procedures to secure sensitive research and to take steps to protect their researchers from being suborned. This strategy faces several challenges. The first, as McCuaig-Johnston explained, is personal.

“Chinese civilian university researchers aren’t going to tell Western scientists and engineers they are partnered with that their work is going out the back door into the Chinese military. A researcher in Canada who researches with his long-time friend from Nanjing University wouldn’t necessarily know that this is happening.

“And, even if they realise that it’s happening, they may think, ‘Oh well, this is all kind of general research. And it’s not dangerous’,” said McCuaig-Johnston.

For his part, Wark underscored the fact that most professors and administrators lack an understanding of geopolitical realities.

“For most of the universities across the country, understanding of national security threats is minimal to non-existent. It’s not in the normal intellectual universe of most faculty in Canada. Very few of them will ever have been exposed (unless they have a personal interest) to any substantive knowledge about what national security is, who’s involved, what the threats are or how they’re changing.

“There are very few programmes or courses taught on this subject across Canada. So there’s a long way that universities have to go to up their own game.”

A further complicating factor, said Wark, is that “universities are fundamentally anarchic institutions. Individual academics, especially tenured academics, have a lot of freedom, as they should, to conduct their own research and choose their own partners. That’s a cherished principle, and university administrations are not always regarded as friends of faculty members.”

Accordingly, he adds: “There’s a long way to go in terms of building relationships between university administrators and university researchers to come to common ground and an understanding of what might pose a national security risk and research partnerships.”

Research security plan

The memo sent to UW researchers is part of the university’s multilevel research security structure that looks to safeguard both the cutting-edge research undertaken at UW and its researchers.

The plan involves working with “multiple levels of government [eg, CSIS, the RCMP and funding agencies such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)] who have issued guidance on what constitutes sensitive research” and communicating that information to researchers.

A central piece of the security protocols at UW, as at all of Canada’s research universities, is completing the checklist prepared by the Canadian government on safeguarding research.

Among its 23 questions are: How might an adverse foreign interest exploit your research or product? Are you aware of specific and-or suspicious foreign interest in your research or product? Can you imagine a scenario in which your research or product could be used for malicious purposes regardless of its intended use?

While Wark thinks that the checklist and other actions of the Canadian government are steps in the right direction and that UW is also on the right track, he pointed to a gap between universities’ administrations and what the federal government and its security agencies know about threats.

What’s needed, he said, is a “trusted pipeline of information sharing”. And, because this pipeline will necessarily include classified information that will impact what universities do, universities will have to have people with security, up to and including, top secret clearance, in the administration.

“As you know, universities on the whole don’t possess classified information in the context of how we understand national security secrets. Nevertheless, it is a two-way pipeline in the sense that CSIS is going to have to be more granular with trusted security-cleared officials in the universities about what they’re seeing.

“And university officials are going to have to be not only trusted recipients of that information but also knowledgeable so that they can understand well that this is the intelligence picture we’re being given – and this is how we think we need to respond to it.”

For his part, Dr Chad Gaffield, chief executive officer of U15, an association of Canada’s 15 leading research universities, told me that in last year’s budget the federal government allocated funds for universities to hire research security officers and set up awareness and phrasing modules that are needed in the changing geopolitical context.

According to Gaffield, U15 “works as an interface between the federal government and our campuses with a view towards optimising research and innovation in the Canadian university ecosystem”.

He said that he hopes security will soon be handled in the routine way that other aspects of research, such as establishing and adhering to research protocols, are.

McCuaig-Johnston had praise for NSERC’s national security screening. “Recently,” she said, “NSERC has sent 48 proposals to be further reviewed by the government’s security agencies. Two-thirds have been deemed to be a security risk to the country and have been declined. This suggests that in the past such projects would have gotten through, but now they are closing the door.”

The case of Huawei

A year ago, Canada joined the other members of the Five Eyes intelligence agency (US, UK, Australia and New Zealand) in banning Huawei from supplying telecom equipment for the national 5G network. However, Huawei smartphones and other products continue to be sold in Canada, and a number of Canadian universities have continued to do work paid for by this multinational company with close ties to the Chinese government.

One of them is Polytechnique Montréal (PM), which has two research projects funded by Huawei. While the contents of those agreements are at present confidential, the research results will be published in the same way as other academic studies.

Publishing research, even if it is paid for by private companies, is a requirement that the U15 institutions insist on, said Gaffield. “When universities develop these partnerships, we keep our eyes clearly focused on the fact that we’re all here for the public good, for the benefit of society. We do our work for the public and that includes publishing our research.”

In an email to University World News, Annie Touchette, PM external communications manager, said that PM is bound by “la Loi sur l’accès aux documents des organismes publics et sur la protection des renseignments personnels” (the Act respecting access to documents held by public bodies and the protection of personal information). Detailed information about the project can only be released through an “access to information request”.

Another Quebec university under contract to do research for Huawei, according to Sarah-Maude Lefebvre, who writes for Le Journal de Montréal, is the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) in Quebec City, which had not responded to a request for a comment from University World News at the time of publication.

According to Lefebvre (25 April), when she asked about INRS’s research for Huawei, Julie Robert, a spokesperson for INRS, said: “We are not able to give more details about the contract with Huawei … So we cannot disclose details like project name, domain, etc.”

According to Lefebvre, Quebec’s premier university, McGill (Montreal), is also conducting research for Huawei. When asked for a comment, Katherine Gombay, senior communications officer at McGill, did not explicitly refer to the Chinese telecom giant in her response.

“For the past four years, members of U15, including McGill, have led efforts to establish a national security framework around Canadian research. We were the catalysts behind the creation of the Government-Universities Working Group on Research Security, which worked on a strategy for ensuring security of the Canadian research enterprise. This included helping to develop guidelines for securing Canadian research, advice on protecting research data and outcomes, and sharing best practices.

“When the federal government and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) require that research collaborations with certain countries and companies cease because they are sanctioned or do not pass research security checks, the university complied immediately.

“Therefore, in February 2023, when the Canadian government sent out a statement regarding grant applications involving the conduct of research in sensitive research areas, the university immediately complied. The university will continue to comply with all guidelines issued by the Canadian government regarding research partnerships, particularly those related to sensitive areas.”

Coincidentally, on the day this article was being edited (3 May), UW said it would be ending its research projects for Huawei by mid-2024.

“The University of Waterloo intends to complete our current contractual arrangements with Huawei which will conclude within the next year,” Manning told University World News in an email. “This decision is part of our wider effort, in partnership with multiple levels of government, to safeguard scientific research at Waterloo.

“We recognise that this decision places some of our researchers’ cutting-edge work in jeopardy because they are losing reliable funding sources. Now is a time for Canadian businesses and governments to seize the opportunity to help us ensure that our talent and innovation pipeline remains productive now and in the future.”

Close scrutiny

When I asked Wark about the anomalous situation of Canadian universities conducting research paid for by Huawei, he responded by e-mail: “The situation is a known problem not covered by current approaches to scrutinising research grants through federal councils. There are, of course, existing laws in place on sensitive export controls, but these may not be sufficiently understood by the university community.

“It is an area where the emphasis will have to be on expert university scrutiny of research, backed by sufficient flows of threat reporting from the government (eg, CSIS). Huawei is an attractive partner on the surface because of its global scale, technological innovation and resources devoted to research (on a far higher scale than most Canadian companies).

“But it is not sufficiently transparent, has elements in its corporate history that associate it with a state-owned enterprise, and is subject to Chinese state espionage laws.

“For all these reasons any research partnerships with Huawei deserve close scrutiny.”