Republicans Push Legislation to Protect US Universities From Foreign Spying

March 13, 2019 Updated: March 14, 2019

Republicans are introducing new legislation that would seek to protect U.S. universities from the theft of sensitive information by foreign nations such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

A bill dubbed the “Protect Our Universities Act of 2019,” introduced by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) on March 12, would establish a Department of Education-led interagency task force to address the vulnerabilities currently present on college campuses across the nation.

The task force would manage a list of “sensitive research projects” that have links to the Commerce Control List, and the U.S. Munitions List. It would also manage other “foundational principles developed for advanced military technologies.”

Banks specifically singled out spying tactics used by the Chinese Community Party (CCP).

“Countries like China may use subversive tactics to gain footholds in major STEM programs in U.S. universities to create a pipeline of data and information back to the mainland,” he said in a statement. “China is also using telecommunications giants Huawei Technologies and ZTE as entry points into the United States’ data networks, both on and off university campuses.”

In June last year, Banks wrote to Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos about the threat that China and other adversarial nations pose to universities in America. At the time, a working group was requested to find a solution, but Banks said the department’s response failed to adequately address the issue.

“The Department of Education’s lack of an adequate response to this request prompted me to craft legislation on the issue,” he wrote. “We must get tough against these covert threats on college campuses and limit the effectiveness of their information-gathering missions.”

Banks noted that the CCP has a “long record” of methods used to get information back to Beijing. Chinese nationals who study abroad in America are manipulated and pressured to be “information collectors for the communist government and military in Beijing.”

Under the new bill, students from the four nations deemed to be a threat—China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea—would have to apply for a waiver to be allowed to participate in sensitive research projects funded by the Department of Defense, Intelligence Community, and Department of Energy. The waiver would need to be granted by the Director of National Intelligence.

The legislation would also prevent technology developed by companies that have been recognized as bad actors such as “Huawei, ZTE, Kaspersky, and others” from being used in sensitive research projects funded by the government.

In June last year, a senior official in the Defense Department said they are investigating research partnerships between Chinese companies and American universities, especially on U.S. campuses. 

A Senate report released in February by Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Chairman Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and ranking member Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) stated that the Beijing-backed Confucius Institutes on American campuses should be closed if no major changes in their operations occur.

The 93-page bipartisan report pointed to the language and culture at the institutes as a threat to academic freedom and said that many U.S. colleges have failed to disclose money received from the CCP, despite guidance from the Education Department that foreign gifts be reported. The CCP has spent over $156 million on U.S. schools since 2006.

Follow Bowen on Twitter: @BowenXiao3
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