Cyberwar Comes to US Universities
by Jim Lundy
The cyberwar we are facing globally is not limited to commercial enterprises. Given recent cyber warfare news, it has now become very clear that there is a strategy to leverage higher education institutions to steal information and knowhow. This is not new, but it is coming to light now. The main culprit is China, but, as I point out in this blog, other countries are responsible as well. This blog is an overview of the recent growth of spying with thoughts on how to deal with this growing trend.
Harvard Professor Charles Lieber Arrested
Dr. Charles Lieber was arrested in January 2020. He was a professor at Harvard University in Boston. What the US Justice Department discovered was that Lieber was also a participant in the Chinese espionage program called Thousand Talents. He was also under contract with the Wuhan University of Technology, which was paying him a $50,000 a month retainer.
Cyberwar Today: What Is the Thousand Talents Program from China?
The Thousand Talents program is all about spying on foreign companies and universities. This is a Chinese government-sponsored program. Besides universities, many companies have been targeted, including Coca Cola, Eastman Chemical, General Electric, and many more.
Lieutenant Poses as Student
Yanqing Ye was a student at Boston University from 2017-2019. She is a lieutenant in the Chinese military and is wanted by the FBI for spying on U.S. military operations, among other things.
There may be other students who are like Yanqing Ye, though the vast majority of students are simply at U.S. universities to study and learn. Institutions must be as cognizant of racial profiling as they are of potential intellectual threats, and that's why open discussions are needed.
Professors in Trouble at U.S. Universities
The other arrests in 2020 at universities include a slow but growing number of cases:
|University||Name||Area of Study||Charges filed|
|University of Arkansas||Simon Ang||Electrical Engineering||Wire fraud, making false statements, and failing to disclose employment by Chinese firms and universities|
|Harvard||Charles Lieber||Chair, Dept. of Chemistry and Chemical Biology||Making a materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statement|
|University of Texas||Bo Mao||Computer Science||Civil case alleges Mao stole trade secrets from a U.S. company and gave them to Huawei|
Using Colleges to Spy Is Not New, and China Is Not Alone
Other countries have also used the higher education system to gain access to information and knowledge. Over the last 75 years, countries including Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and others, have been caught in the act of using these spying techniques. However, the current broadness and the growth of the Thousand Talents program is what is surprising so many in security communities.
Universities, governments, and technology companies need to be aware of the Thousand Talents program and take appropriate action. Institutions need to build out a rigorous hiring process for their potential professors, and once professors are hired, limit access to potentially sensitive information.