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The Newest Threat on the FBI’s Radar: Brown Undergrads?

In February, the Senate Intelligence Committee held a hearing on major threats to U.S. national security. One issue that was addressed in depth for the first time by U.S. intelligence officials was the potential security risks associated with foreign students, particularly Chinese students, studying at U.S. universities. FBI Director Christopher Wray revealed that the FBI was actively investigating certain groups that facilitated student exchanges between China and the U.S. The FBI’s threat assessment of these Chinese students even led the agency to publish a report on the matter, titled, “China: The Risk to Academia” highlighting the efforts of the Chinese government to use its students, as well as Americans studying in China, as non-traditional intelligence sources.

The report alleges that the open academic environments of U.S. universities, while important for fostering innovation and collaboration, also present potential security risks. For Brown University, where 37 percent of graduate students and 18 percent of undergrads are international students, these issues are particularly salient. The potential risks that the FBI raises are real and should not be ignored, but the FBI’s stance does raise a number of issues of its own. First, the report could contribute to the emergence of xenophobic or racist attitudes towards Chinese in academia; secondly, it helps support some assumptions that the purpose and mission of U.S. academic institutions in a globalized academic environment is to feed the U.S. military-industrial complex. Moreover, the report reveals further evidence of the United States’ hypocrisy related to economic and intellectual espionage. 

The FBI’s report paints a caricature-like portrait of the military, political, and economic intentions of both the Chinese and U.S. governments. For example, a table comparing U.S. and Chinese intellectual property norms, the United States is said to manifest, “development by innovation” and “no-government sponsored espionage”. Meanwhile, the table claims that China’s norms are those of, “development by theft, replication, and commercialization” and “government-sponsored espionage.” The report declares that, “[China] aspires to equal or surpass the United States as a global superpower and influence the world with a value system shaped by undemocratic, totalitarian ideals”. These characterizations may contain elements of truth, but they are sweeping and over-generalized, and evoke xenophobic imagery not dissimilar to historic portrayals of China and its people as, “Fu Manchu”-like, “oriental” mastermind villains.

Regardless, the type of behavior in which the FBI alleges Chinese government participates is a common, almost standard practice among large governments. In fact, the United States and its intelligence agencies have been implicated in a number of high-profile industrial espionage/intelligence cases, some of which were disclosed in the Snowden leaks in 2013. Earlier examples include CIA monitoring of Japanese auto executives during trade talks in 1995 as part of the ECHELON surveillance program, or NSA eavesdropping on negotiations between Airbus and Saudi Arabian airline executives, which were leveraged into providing business openings for U.S. aircraft companies. Even the beginning of the industrial revolution in the U.S. was in part the result of Francis Cabot Lowell memorizing British textile factory machinery to bring the technology back to the U.S. in the early 19th century. A Guardian report in 2017 detailed CIA practices of recruiting U.S. academics as intelligence assets and hosting academic conferences to tempt foreign scientists to defect. While U.S. practices do not excuse Chinese behavior, it is worth noting that Chinese practices are not entirely an anomaly and that similar strategies are well documented in the context of international strategic and economic competition.

The issue of foreign governments taking advantage of U.S. academia to gain an economic and strategic edge ultimately raises important questions about the nature of academia itself. Are U.S. universities places for scholars around the world to participate in a free exchange of ideas, or are they primarily centers for research funded by and beneficial to the U.S. government? In FY 2013, U.S. universities received almost $1.8 billion dollars in research funding from the Department of Defense. Funded research includes projects ranging from next-generation brain-computer interfaces to social science research funded by Minerva grants.


The FBI report lays out a number of different ways foreign governments might take advantage of open academic environments – for example, cyber techniques such as phishing, or human intelligence tactics such as offering scholarships to students in exchange for information, or foreign visitors ignoring tour parameters. Overall, the report is very general with its descriptions of risk factors, which makes it hard to tell how severe the risks are. In one instance, it states that “Joint research opportunities and collaborative environments, such as incubators or joint research centers, can enable a foreign adversary to obtain your research. They can also provide an opportunity to spot, assess, and befriend fellow STEM students or researchers who might assist — either wittingly or unwittingly — in passing your research and development to a foreign adversary.” The advice it gives for universities to enhance their safety mechanisms is also quite generalized: update security software, screen incoming employees, and the like. One bullet point suggests developing, “strong risk management and compliance programs.”

Most of these common sense measures are straightforward and likely easy for institutions to put in place, which they should. However, FBI expectations that U.S. institutions should operate under the assumption that “the Chinese government takes advantage of every opportunity — from academic collaboration to economic espionage — to develop and maintain a strategic economic edge” have the potential to create an atmosphere where fear and suspicion between colleagues and classmates undermine important collaborative research. There is a danger of a McCarthyist frenzy developing around Chinese students and academics studying at U.S. institutions. While this report discusses the infiltration of U.S. academia rather than the government, there remains a potential for paranoia to take hold among American students and scholars. The security threats may be real, but it is dangerous to assume that a large proportion of these scholars pose any security risk at all. Indeed, the FBI report does acknowledge the value of preserving collaborative environments in U.S. institutions. However, FBI Director Christopher Wray has stated that, “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat, but a whole-of-society threat on their end, and I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us.” This type of language frames small threats in academic settings as a manifestation of a larger, open conflict between two adversaries. The framing is unnecessary – there is no reason for U.S. academic institutions to be on the front lines of counterintelligence efforts. The complex research they do for U.S. military and intelligence agencies is important, but ultimately what defines our academic institutions is the open exchange of ideas they foster between academics and students from all over the globe.

While steps should be taken to mitigate risks, measures that are taken too far hold their own potential for creating a hysteria toward the large numbers of Chinese students in the U.S., while undermining the innovation in U.S. universities that the FBI purportedly seeks to protect.

Photo: “Brown University