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23rd Jan 2021

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Universities in EU on alert to China spy threat

  • The Vrije Universiteit Brussel building in Belgium (Photo: Bglrka)

Universities in the EU ought to appoint civilian spy-catchers to stop China and others stealing secrets, the European Commission has suggested.

The special "individual" or "group" in each university would "liaise" with real counter-intelligence officers from national security services "interested in dealing with issues of foreign infringement", the commission said.

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The academic sheriffs would identify "areas of vulnerability" in their research institutes, such as access to labs or computers.

And they would give security briefings on campus, for instance to "PhD fellows and/or researchers traveling to foreign countries that might not share our scientific values".

That was one idea in a five-page "concept note" sent by the commission to national authorities and universities in Europe in February, now seen by EUobserver.

"The possible development of guidelines at EU level is currently being discussed at a preliminary stage," an EU source also told this website.

"No decision has been taken on the final format and legal basis of a possible document," the source said.

The whole initiative came in reaction to "foreign interference" of a "coercive, covert, deceptive, [and] corrupting" nature in some EU research institutes, the source noted.

"Such activities have been observed in the EU and the guidelines could be a tool to partly tackle foreign interference," the source said.

The guidelines were meant to be "state-agnostic", the concept note said.

The agnosticism comes amid diplomatic sensitivity, with China tending to react badly to EU criticism, such as Europe's recent accusations that Beijing was spreading coronavirus disinformation.

But the EU note mentioned China four times on its front page and was born out of a meeting on China in December in which European academics raised the alarm.

The Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, last year, also decided to cut ties with the Confucius Institute, a Chinese offshoot, after Belgium's homeland security service declared its head, Xinning Song, persona non grata.

And the EU commission's new spotlight on scientific espionage comes amid wider Sino-European mistrust.

EU states are wary of installing Chinese 5G data networks. They are disturbed by China's investment in strategic European industries. Chinese hackers have been targeting the EU. And Chinese firms have been accused of stealing Western intellectual property on an epic scale for years on end.

But despite the hostile climate, European universities were "remarkably open in their approach to international collaboration," the EU concept note pointed out.

And their openness had "facilitated" foreign espionage, it added.

Other ideas in Brussels' paper included signing prenuptial contracts with overseas entities on "what will happen to the data" they might generate in joint projects.

European universities ought to ask themselves security questions, the commission said, such as: "Might the research violate ethical standards or national or European export controls on ... dual-use technology?".

Dual-use technology is material that can be used in civilian or military applications.

Universities should also ask: "Might the structure of the financing [of international partnerships] create ... dependencies?".

And new "codes of conduct", which included "red lines" and "sanctions for infringement", could be drawn up at national level, the commission proposed.

Science and borders

The concept paper underlined that international academic projects had produced "world-class" success stories.

"The purpose of such guidelines is not to curb international collaboration, but to encourage a culture in which risks ... are managed and benefits realised," the EU source said.

The concept note suggestions and any feedback the note generated were "without prejudice to the final position of the European Commission on the matters described within," the source added.

The Chinese EU mission declined to comment.

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