AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The U.S. government is urging universities to monitor the Chinese researchers who work for them. Intelligence agencies cite concerns over spying and the theft of intellectual property. NPR's Emily Feng joins us in the studio. Welcome.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Thanks, Audie.
CORNISH: So you've been digging into this. So far, what have you learned? What's actually happening?
FENG: What university administrators have been telling us is the FBI, other counterintelligence officials had been visiting them over the last year or so. And they're encouraging universities to develop protocols for monitoring the researchers from China that come work for them in STEM fields. So these are science, technology, engineering and math fields. The FBI wants to know what these students are working on, which labs they're working in and any affiliations they might have with Chinese institutions that the FBI finds suspect.
And this is all because there are these fears now that Chinese students and researchers can be co-opted as nontraditional spies for China to steal technology and help China get ahead. Here's Bill Evanina. He's the top counterintelligence official for the U.S. government.
BILL EVANINA: We have to do a better, more effective job in the government explaining what that threat is, what does it look like and feel like on campus and what is that technology they might be developing or researching on campus that adversaries are looking forward to stealing, whether it be intellectual property, trade secrets or IP theft or just research in general.
CORNISH: You used the term nontraditional spies. Can you talk about this idea of the threat of espionage from Chinese researchers? How real is that?
FENG: There have been a couple of documented cases in the last year of academics who've been accused of espionage and fired. And there also have been a lot of high-profile cases in the last year of people investigated and then exonerated. The problem here is that universities are saying they're told to monitor researchers, but they're not given any evidence as to why they should.
CORNISH: Is this approach from the FBI or from the federal government unusual? Is this how they usually act on these kinds of concerns?
FENG: I mean, they liaise with the private sector, and that's basically the comment that the FBI gave to me when I asked them about this for the story. What's exceptional here, though, is just how broad the briefings are. The FBI is essentially going to universities and preemptively saying, can you give us information on these people simply because you have a collaboration with a Chinese researcher or Chinese institutions? And just a sign of how worried the U.S. is about Chinese espionage, particularly in academia.
Intelligence officials also told NPR that they're going to hundreds of CEOs, investors, think tanks, basically anyone who travels to China frequently, and telling them, you got to be on alert for cybersecurity threats and espionage threats.
CORNISH: To go back to schools for a second, though, how are universities reacting to this?
FENG: They're obviously not happy. I mean, they want to protect U.S. intellectual property. At the same time, they want more specific instructions, and they don't want to just target Chinese people. It's important to note they do have compliance protocols to make sure they're not, you know, doing research with a banned company. But they say right now the directions they're given are so vague that it could lead to a lot of subjective error and discrimination.
I talked to Fred Cate. He's a vice president of Research at Indiana University, and he says all this could harm research.
FRED CATE: Given the penalties involved, we're - there's going to be a pressure to lean on the side of conservatism and withholding more and more information.
FENG: What he's saying is that universities could eventually decide to just limit the kind of research they do and particularly who works on that research.
CORNISH: Emily, it sounds like universities basically have to walk this line between wanting to do cutting-edge research with the best and brightest in the world, but then also the U.S. government telling them to watch out. I mean, is it possible to monitor so many foreign students?
FENG: University leaders I spoke to say they don't have the right answer right now. There are about 340,000 Chinese students who come every single year. But they're going to have to make a decision because right now universities are unwillingly at this forefront of a question of how to balance national security and maintain your global engagement with the research community. And whatever decision they make is going to have real significance. I mean, it not only affects how global research is done but also whether or not Chinese American and Chinese researchers come under scrutiny.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Emily Feng. Thanks for your reporting.
FENG: Thanks, Audie.
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