Over a year ago, the United States began warning its allies that the Chinese technology company Huawei was a security threat.
Around that time, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, was making the same point quietly to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
An FBI agent sent an email to a University of Illinois administrator who oversees research at the school. The agent wanted to know if school officials believed Huawei had stolen any intellectual property from the university.
When the administrator said no, the agent wrote back: “I assumed those would be your answers, but I had to ask.”
The agent’s email was part of a larger investigation.
The FBI has been reaching out to universities across the country. The government is trying to halt what U.S. officials suggest is the theft of technology and trade secrets by researchers working for China.
The Associated Press, or AP, has documented the reach and intensity of the campaign through emails and records requests to public universities in 50 states. The emails express the concerns of U.S. officials that universities are vulnerable targets.
FBI agents have spoken at meetings, informed university officials and given out booklets with warnings of trade secret theft. The AP says it found that, in the past two years, agents requested the emails of two University of Washington researchers. They reportedly asked Oklahoma State University if it has scientists in specific fields. The FBI also sought information about “possible misuse” of research money by a professor with the University of Colorado Boulder.
The emails show school administrators usually asking for meetings with FBI agents. But the emails also show some administrators’ struggling to balance national security issues against their own desire to avoid limiting research or harming scientists’ public image.
The U.S. Justice Department says it recognizes those struggles. The department says it wants only to help universities separate the relatively few researchers involved in theft from the majority who are not.
Top FBI officials told the AP they are not urging school officials to watch researchers based on their nationality. Instead, they are asking schools to take steps to protect research and watch for suspicious behavior.
John Demers is the Justice Department’s top national security official. He told the AP that his agency is simply trying to demonstrate the risks that exist. It does not want to stop universities from welcoming researchers and students from a country like China, he said.
U.S. officials have long accused China of stealing trade secrets from American companies, a claim which the Chinese government denies.
The FBI’s effort comes as other federal agencies put restrictions in place. This includes the Department of Defense and Energy Department, which provide money for university research grants.
The National Institutes of Health has sent many letters to universities in the past year. They warn of researchers that officials believe may have hidden grants received from China, or improperly shared secret research information.
The threat, officials say, is more than theoretical.
In just the past two months, a University of Kansas researcher was charged with collecting federal grant money while working as full-time employee for a Chinese university. In addition, a Chinese government employee was arrested in a visa fraud plan that the Justice Department says was aimed at influencing American researchers. And a university professor in Texas was accused in a trade secret case involving circuit board technology.
The most important case this year has not involved a U.S. university but Huawei. In January, Huawei was charged with stealing trade secrets and avoiding U.S. trade sanctions. The Chinese company denies wrongdoing. Several universities including the University of Illinois, which received the FBI email last February, have since begun cutting ties with Huawei.
Yet the Justice Department’s record of success is not perfect. This has led to criticism from some people that the concerns are not so serious.
In 2015, federal officials dropped charges against a Temple University professor who had been accused of sharing designs for a small heating device with China.
The professor, Xiaoxing Xi, is taking the FBI to court. “It was totally wrong,” he said, “so I can only speak from my experience that whatever they put out there is not necessarily true.”
Last year, Richard Wood, an administrator at the University of New Mexico, wrote an email to co-workers expressing disinterest in the FBI’s efforts. Wood wrote that he took the national security concerns the FBI identified as serious. But he also strongly supported the tradition in higher education of “the free exchange of scientific knowledge wherever appropriate.”
Wood called that tradition one that “has been the basis of international scientific progress” for hundreds of years.
I’m Susan Shand.
And I’m Pete Musto.
Erick Tucker reported this story for the Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
How does your country handle the theft of technology or trade secrets? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
assume(d) – v. to think that something is true or probably true without knowing that it is true
theft – n. the act or crime of stealing
vulnerable – adj. open to attack, harm, or damage
specific – adj. special or particular
circuit board – n. a board that has many electrical circuits and that is used in a piece of electronic equipment (such as a computer)
grant(s) – n. an amount of money that is given to someone by a government or company to be used for a particular purpose, such as scientific research
improperly – adv. done in a way that does not follow rules of acceptable behavior
fraud – n. the crime of using dishonest methods to take something valuable from another person
sanction(s) – n. an action that is taken or an order that is given to force a country to obey international laws by limiting or stopping trade with that country or by not allowing economic aid for that country
appropriate – adj. right or suited for some purpose or situation