FBI pushes US universities to spy on Chinese students & visitors

The FBI is urging American universities to help the agency spy on Chinese students and scholars from Chinese research institutions, particularly those working in tech, science, math, engineering, and anything defense-related.

Universities are being asked to shoulder some of the burden of surveillance regarding the 340,000 or so Chinese students attending school in the US last year as tensions between the two countries continue to mount. FBI officials have made the rounds of at least 10 major universities in the last year, warning the schools that students and scholars associated with any entities on the agency’s list of suspect Chinese companies and research institutions should be monitored, according to three administrators at three of the schools who spoke to NPR.

It’s not a question of just looking for suspicious behavior — it’s actually really targeting specific countries and the people from those countries,” Indiana University VP of Research Fred Cate told NPR, adding that the agents were particularly interested in learning which labs Chinese students were working with and “what information they are being exposed to.” Specifically, they’re being told to look at research that might have defense applications, the administrators said.

The intrusion of government spooks into the hallowed halls of academia has many university administrators skeptical, whether because they don’t believe their Chinese students truly represent a threat or because the FBI’s recommendations are unspecific and difficult to implement. But “many of them receive US government research money” and don’t have a choice, a participant in a March intelligence briefing of 70 college administrators from the American Council on Education told NPR. Admins were told to avoid taking money from Huawei and other Chinese firms and to increase their oversight of Chinese researchers. Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University are among the schools that have severed research collaborations with Huawei.

The National Institutes of Health, the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world, has cracked down hard on Chinese visiting scholars in recent months, according to Bloomberg, which investigated one such probe into a top Chinese-American scientist railroaded out of the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center on technicalities once overlooked as standard operating procedure for scholarly collaboration. But what was once innocent sharing of work is now potential spying.

Threats to the integrity of US biomedical research exist,” NIH director Francis Collins warned more than 10,000 research institutions in an ominously vague memo sent in August. “Foreign entities have mounted systematic programs to influence NIH researchers and peer reviewers and take advantage of the long tradition of trust, fairness, and excellence of NIH-supported research activities.” Collins advised the institutions to schedule their own meetings with the FBI to learn the latest on the Chinese threat. 

Other schools have become squeamish about accepting federal grants for research projects that could eventually include Chinese scholars, wary of running afoul of increasingly stringent government regulations. Huawei is the only one of the entities the FBI has warned universities about that is currently on a trade blacklist, meaning the schools have to comb through records manually to find individuals who might be involved with the others, since no software exists to automatically exclude or disqualify them.

But some schools have pushed back against what they see as government overreach. Yale University president Peter Salovey has insisted the feds “clarify concerns they have about international academic exchanges,” urging his colleagues in the Association of American Universities to make use of “the tools already in place, such as export controls, while affirming the principle of open academic exchange for basic research.”

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