Skip to Content

FBI warns university researchers to beware of spies

22 Nov

By Dane Schiller

Federal agents warn that university researchers ­­- on the cutting edge of everything from fighting cancer to improving farming – need to guard against foreign spies seeking to exploit their brilliance by stealing their work.

Houston’s vast ties to the medical and energy sectors mean academics here need to protect their research from espionage, according to the FBI.

“Some of the greatest threats to academia in the Houston area are the insider threat, theft of trade secrets and economic espionage,” said Maryjo Thomas, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Houston Division.

Thomas spoke to more than 100 academic and technology leaders, including some from MD Anderson Cancer Center, who recently gathered behind closed doors at the FBI’s Houston headquarters to discuss protecting research.

“It is an initiative whose time has certainly come,” said Mauro Ferrari, president and CEO of the Houston Methodist Research Institute. “Many people in the world would like to have free access to things developed in the United States.”

The FBI contends that while the innovation and collaboration of researchers and academics have helped form the bedrock of U.S. research success, those same qualities have made universities targets for foreign governments and companies.

“Foreign adversaries and economic competitors can take advantage of the openness and collaborative atmosphere that exits at most learning institutions in order to gain an economic … or technological edge through espionage,” notes an unclassified 2015 FBI counterintelligence report.

It notes that while most foreign students, professors and researches in the United States are here for legitimate reasons, a “very few” of them are actively working at the behest of another government or competing organization.

Academic theft

Hua Zhao, a research assistant at the Medical College of Wisconsin, allegedly stole three vials of a patented compound used in cancer research. He was convicted in 2013 of unauthorized access of a protected computer.

When he was arrested, he had 384 sensitive research files on his personal computer as well as an application to a Chinese foundation in which he claims to have discovered the compound and requests funding for additional research.

  1. Reece Roth, a former University of Tennessee professor emeritus who also had a consulting firm, was sentenced to four years in prison in 2009 for conspiring to violate the Arms Export Control Act.

An indictment states he took restricted documents to China without permission and lied about employing a Chinese citizen and an Iranian citizen.

‘Promise of favors’

The report continues that some foreign governments also pressure legitimate students and expatriates “to report valuable information to intelligence officials often using the promise of favors or threats to family members back home.”

Techniques have ranged from a person on the ground burrowing into an academic program, to infiltrations from across the globe via the Web. E-mail loaded with viruses as well as bogus social media accounts have also been used to make contact and build trust.

In 2010, a U.S. security consultant purposely created an account for a young, attractive and fictitious cyber expert named Robin Sage. The account was used to collect almost 300 social network connections, including the then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the chief of staff for a U.S. congressman and several other leaders in the military and defense contracting arena.

Michael Baker, who was with the Central Intelligence Agency for 17 years, said foreign governments and corporations know if they can avoid the high price of research and development by stealing someone else’s work, they save a massive amount of money, he said.

“It is a very aggressive world out there, whether we are talking about state sponsored actors or private companies,” said Baker, who is the co-founder of Diligence, a global business intelligence firm based in New York. “They want just about anything.”

‘Impacts everything’

Baker said that while China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are among the countries known to often target academia, he warned that every U.S. ally is known to occasionally seek confidential information.

“It is definitely in the university and academia world’s interest to understand what the threat is; what they do about it is their business,” he said. “The reality is there are a lot of people out there looking to steal information. It impacts everything, because universities are so closely tied to government research, commercial sector research and corporations.”

Robert Emery, vice president for safety at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, said the heightened awareness is crucial for academia.

“Faculty in a university environment are usually trusting, open and want to talk about their work,” he said. “We have to make them realize that sometimes, when people ask about their work, they have a malicious intent.”