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EU wants spies on university campuses to fight Chinese tech espionage

EU wants spies on university campuses to fight Chinese tech espionage

by host

BRUSSELS — European universities could soon have a direct line to intelligence agencies as the Continent seeks to shield sensitive tech research from foreign powers, especially China.

National governments want to safeguard Europe’s research in sensitive technology like microchips, quantum, biotech and artificial intelligence. Officials said they want to set up regular classified and non-classified briefings and appoint “liaison officers” to help universities fight foreign snooping, in a text dated May 14 and seen by POLITICO.

The text was signed off by ministers on Thursday.

In recent years, concerns have grown over the presence of Chinese students and academics at European universities or collaborations between European universities and Chinese research institutes. Several universities, for instance, cut ties with the Chinese state-funded Confucius Institute after suspicions of espionage.

Tech leakage is an “emerging risk” — and one where the EU “cannot afford any longer to be naive,” the bloc’s research chief Iliana Ivanova told POLITICO in January.

After less than four months of deliberations, EU member countries adopted sweeping measures Thursday to address those concerns.

One eye-catching measure: recommending that EU national governments let their universities — and generally all organizations conducting or funding research — coordinate with security services.

The main target is to “facilitate information exchange between research performing organizations and research funding organizations on the one hand and intelligence agencies on the other hand,” reads the Council recommendation agreed Thursday.

The language that EU governments will approve is stronger than the Commission proposal from January, which didn’t explicitly mention the involvement of intelligence services.

Universities are generally open to talking to spies to learn more about the risks associated with foreign involvement in their scientific research.

LERU, a network of 24 research-focused universities, said in a statement shared with POLITICO that it was “in favor of closer cooperation between universities and security services,” but pointed out that it should happen while respecting data protection rules.

“A top-down legislative approach must be avoided in this way,” the statement also read.

Some universities have a head start and are already liaising with their respective intelligence services.

“We have very frequent consultation with them,” Luc Sels, rector of the University of Leuven, one of Europe’s leading research universities, told POLITICO in April when asked about how it assessed the risk of foreign interference and the subsequent involvement of security services.

Other countries, like the Netherlands, have set up a one-stop-shop for universities and research institutes with questions about securing their work.

Thursday’s proposal suggests several other measures that EU governments can take to secure academic research, such as simulating incidents or conducting other resiliency testing in the research and innovation sector.

This article has been updated.

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