On April 4, University of Delaware Information Technologies (UD IT) hosted the Delaware chapter of InfraGrad for a symposium on threats to intellectual property. Presenters were received by a packed room as InfraGrad members liaised with UD IT, Research Office, Public Safety, and UD Police Department staff.

InfraGrad is a partnership between the FBI and domestic businesses, academic institutions, and law enforcement agencies. InfraGrad’s mission is to protect the US and its critical infrastructure from attack.

FBI special agents gave two presentations:

  • The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States: a multi-agency committee that reviews international investment in US businesses for potential impact on national security
  • The Thousand Talents Program: China’s national plan to recruit domestic and foreign experts in science, technology, research, entrepreneurship, and other fields

Researchers and security professionals were warned that state-sponsored foreign actors and state-controlled business partners represent a significant – and increasing – threat to researchers and businesses. Through corporate and academic espionage, they illicitly transfer technologies and information from foreign organizations to their home government.

FBI special agents cited several cases in which individuals recruited by the Thousand Talents Program attempted to steal and exfiltrate United States jet fighter technology and other intellectual property (IP) in violation of contracts, export controls, and IP laws.

MIT and Indiana University recently severed ties with Chinese organizations. In MIT’s case, it ended relations with tech companies strongly suggested to be under the influence of the Chinese government. IU joined several of its peer institutions in closing its Confucius Institute, which has drawn bipartisan criticism for being “part of the Chinese Communist Party’s ‘United Front’ foreign influence operations” and whose operation conflicts with Pentagon-funded language programs under recent legislative changes.

The April 4 Washington Post article continues:

“When national security professionals first sounded the alarm about Chinese partnerships in U.S. universities last year, the academic sector was skeptical and resistant. Now, through a mixture of external pressure and internal debate, more U.S. colleges and universities are taking a sober look at the Chinese government’s presence on their campuses – and are deciding to curtail it.”

UD officials, InfraGrad members, and FBI agents held a candid discussion about the future of higher education amidst uncertainty and a lack of transparency on the part of foreign organizations. Academia is wrestling with methods to curtail IP theft and propagandizing without denying opportunities for, and the work of, legitimate scholars and organizations.

At present, much of the responsibility is still on researchers and staff to identify suspicious behavior that may indicate IP theft and to cooperate with UD and other resources to investigate these incidents. However, UD representatives and InfraGrad members came away from the session with a deeper appreciation for the shared challenge of balancing collaborative research with awareness and protection. Increased partnerships between researchers, the Research Office, and IT are a promising first step toward giving principal investigators more control over their projects and discoveries.