When most Americans think of espionage, we think of debonair foreign spies sneaking around military compounds – or bespectacled hackers hammering away at keyboards to steal top-secret information from foreign adversaries.
But there is an entire world of espionage happening right under our noses – at American colleges and universities.
Foreign intelligence services routinely probe computer systems at higher education institutions in the United States – and they also enlist (or implant) students and professors as assets to pass important research and findings to their spy agencies.
The main goal isn’t typically to learn any classified state secrets (not in academic espionage anyway). Foreign actors want to steal the important technological advancements, research, and innovations created by our nation’s best and brightest researchers and scientists.
In 2013, the Commission on the Theft of Intellectual Property said that this academic espionage made up a significant part of the estimated $300 billion of intellectual property theft America endured that year.
According to the commission, “American scientific innovations and new technologies are tracked and stolen from American universities, national laboratories, private think tanks, and start-up companies, as well as from the major R&D centers of multinational companies.”
This is a serious problem for the United States. If this level of academic espionage continues, our ability to lead the world in innovation and new technology could be severely hampered – and the future could be defined by the countries who are stealing our ideas.
One of the biggest offenders is China. Former National Counterintelligence Executive Michelle Van Cleave told the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on June 9, 2016 that “hundreds of thousands of students and academicians” aid China’s spy operations.
Many of these students, professors, and researchers (either willingly or through intense pressure and coercion from the Chinese Communist Party) help to “potentially extend the reach of Chinese intelligence into the core structures of our nation’s security,” Van Cleave told the commission.
Of particular concern are China’s Confucius Institutes that have been established on campuses in the U.S. and across the world. At first blush, these institutes appear to be legitimate academic foreign exchange programs promoting Chinese language and cultural studies. However, they are also used to spread Chinese Communist Party propaganda and soft power by promoting the party’s vision of China. Concerns have been raised that they could be used for espionage efforts.
On Feb. 13, 2018, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee that China is beginning to pull back on this effort, but the institutes are still “something that we’re watching warily and in certain instances have developed … appropriate investigative steps.”
Luckily, there is an ongoing effort in Congress to curb this activity and protect American colleges and universities from being helpless targets of foreign espionage. The “Stop Higher Education Espionage and Theft Act of 2019,” or SHEET Act, was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., is carrying the proposal in the House.
This bill would create a new way for federal law enforcement to designate an entity suspected of spying in our colleges and universities as a “foreign intelligence threat to higher education.” (The designation will be promptly appealable when warranted.)
Colleges and universities that accept gifts from or enter into contracts with designated threats will have more stringent reporting requirements under the Higher Education Act. If evidence of espionage is found, authorities will be able to quickly remove identified threats.
This is a critically important problem that we must solve. When foreign countries steal our research and ideas, American researchers, innovators, and thinkers lose the ability to lead our country into the future. Ultimately, this costs American jobs – and our security.
Congress should pass the SHEET Act as soon as possible.