Corporations in the United States lose hundreds of billions of dollars each year through industrial espionage, the theft of proprietary commercial information. Over the past two decades, many of these incidents have been noteworthy for their alleged conduct at the behest of foreign governments, their use of sophisticated technology, and the sheer scope of their targets: telecommunication, transportation innovation, computer components, digital software development, aerospace engineering endeavors, and the like.
Now, it seems that American universities are fast becoming a primary target of international information-gathering efforts.
In April, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigations has detected, and continues to investigate, the presence of foreign “spies” in the U.S. academic community. This penetration of academia is particularly troubling given the very nature of the target. Research universities, especially, are based on open collaboration within a global network of resources and actors. Academic conferences, paper reviews, even social events, all provide forums designed for sharing knowledge. This collaboration allows for the rapid advance of research; but also, provides a conspicuous opportunity to those who seek to use the information toward nefarious purposes.
Over the past five years, there has been a dramatic increase in academic solicitations from foreign-born scholars, in particular those from the Middle East and East Asia. In keeping with this trend, several professors have reported inquiries into classified or sensitive information that may jeopardize industrial or defense advances. Complicating any counter-intelligence measures is the rising number of international students who are pursuing their degrees in the United States. (Estimates indicate 35% to 50% of science and engineering graduate students are of foreign origin.) Equally as disconcerting is that the graduates of these programs often find professional positions within U.S. firms—positions that allow further access to cutting-edge endeavors and more opportunity to comprise the integrity of progress.
Fortunately, concerns, regarding this type of espionage, have echoed loud enough to garner the attention of university presidents and investigators at the FBI who have come together to combat this growing threat. The National Security Higher Education Advisory Board has helped to identify potential vulnerabilities in research programs, respond to physical and virtual incidents, and generate threat awareness among the academic community. Likewise, the Department of Homeland Security has developed an academic advisory council designed to address these issues and track the immigration status of foreign students.
The risk to American technological advances also extends to the many study-abroad programs that U.S. students are involved in. These campuses, their educators, and students make prime recruiting targets for foreign governments. This dynamic was thoroughly exploited by the Soviet Union during the Cold War—and those susceptibilities remain for those countries who find themselves adversarial to American advancement.
The danger of espionage is pervasive in the U.S. due to the preeminence of American technological achievement, the educational capabilities of research universities, and the vast array of industries that help ensure commercial success and national security. To thwart this threat, collaboration between law enforcement personnel, intelligence agencies, the leadership at universities and professors who work on sensitive research must be in unison. This partnership should actively identify suspicious inquiries, create safety protocols for sensitive information, and train educators in responding to illegitimate requests for information. Moreover, these joint-ventures should assess the existing physical and virtual research resources for any potential intrusions while garnering lessons-learned from past academic investigations.
Moreover, stopping this threat concerns all U.S. citizens; for, it is only through securing the research of today that the United States can continue to deliver the promise of progress for the future.
Joseph Popcun, an analyst on contract with the Department of Homeland Security, enjoys following current developments in foreign affairs, national security, and public policy. A Syracuse University graduate, and Syracuse native, he hopes to continue policy work on federal issues of immigration, defense, and international relations.