Monday, April 9, 2012

American Universities Infected by Foreign Spies Detected by FBI

Via Bloomberg (April 8, 2012) -

While overshadowed by espionage against corporations, efforts by foreign countries to penetrate universities have increased in the past five years, Figliuzzi said. The FBI and academia, which have often been at loggerheads, are working together to combat the threat, he said.

Attempts by countries in East Asia, including China, to obtain classified or proprietary information by “academic solicitation,” such as requests to review academic papers or study with professors, jumped eightfold in 2010 from a year earlier, according to a 2011 U.S. Defense Department report. Such approaches from the Middle East doubled, it said.

“Placing academics at U.S. research institutions under the guise of legitimate research offers access to developing U.S. technologies and cutting-edge research” in such areas as information systems, lasers, aeronautics and underwater robots, the report said.


While most international students, researchers and professors come to the U.S. for legitimate reasons, universities are an “ideal place” for foreign intelligence services “to find recruits, propose and nurture ideas, learn and even steal research data, or place trainees,” according to a 2011 FBI report.

In one instance described in the report, the hosts of an international conference invited a U.S. researcher to submit a paper. When she gave her talk at the conference, they requested a copy, hooked a thumb drive to her laptop and downloaded every file. In another, an Asian graduate student arranged for researchers back home to visit an American university lab and take unauthorized photos of equipment so they could reconstruct it, the report said.

A foreign scientist’s military background or purpose isn’t always apparent. Accustomed to hosting visiting scholars, Professor Daniel J. Scheeres didn’t hesitate to grant a request several years ago by Yu Xiaohong to study with him at the University of Michigan. She expressed a “pretty general interest” in Scheeres’s work on topics such as movement of celestial bodies in space, he said in a telephone interview.

She cited an affiliation with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a civilian organization, Scheeres said. The Beijing address Yu listed in the Michigan online directory is the same as the Academy of Equipment Command & Technology, where instructors train Chinese military cadets and officers. Scheeres said he wasn’t aware of that military connection, nor that Yu co-wrote a 2004 article on improving the precision of anti- satellite weapons.

Once Yu arrived, her questions made him uncomfortable, said Scheeres, who now teaches at the University of Colorado. As a result, he stopped accepting visiting scholars from China.

“It was pretty clear to me that the stuff she was interested in probably had some military satellite-orbit applications,” he said. “Once I saw that, I didn’t really tell her anything new, or anything that couldn’t be published. I didn’t engage that deeply with her.”


Unlike its counterparts in other countries, which rely on their own operatives, China’s intelligence service deploys a freelance network including students, researchers and false- front companies, said David Major, president of the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies in Falls Church, Virginia and a former FBI official.

China has “lots of students who either are forced to or volunteer to collect information,” he said. “I’ve heard it said, ‘If it wanted to steal a beach, Russia would send a forklift. China would send a thousand people who would pick up a grain of sand at a time.’”

China also has more than 3,000 front companies in the U.S. “for the sole purpose of acquiring our technology,” former CIA officer S. Eugene Poteat, president of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers in McLean, Virginia, wrote in the fall/winter 2006-2007 edition of “Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies.”


Universities “may not fully grasp exactly who they’re spinning off their inventions to,” Figliuzzi said. “The company could be a front for a foreign power, and often is. We share specific intelligence with university presidents, and we’ve opened some eyes.”

Michigan State’s Simon learned to be wary of front companies by serving on the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board, established by the FBI and CIA in 2005. It “makes you more aware that you need to look below the surface of some of these offers,” she said. “A short-term solution may turn into an institutional embarrassment.”

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