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World Foreign espionage of Canadian research a risk to ‘national interests,’ CSIS warns

CSIS said it routinely meets with universities to warn them of risks.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada’s spy service is warning that Canadian research is “of interest to foreign states,” whose exploitation of such work poses potential harm to “Canada’s national interests.”

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) said on Tuesday that it routinely meets with universities to warn them of risks. The Globe and Mail reported this week that at least nine Canadian postsecondary institutions have conducted joint studies in recent years with researchers from Chinese military institutions, including the People’s Liberation Army Information Engineering University, China’s Air Defence College and the elite National University of Defense Technology.

In general, Canadian university policies require joint research to be published openly.

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The collaborations, however, have raised concern that Canada’s academic establishment has become a target for Chinese intelligence-gathering, as Beijing conducts a sweeping technological modernization of its armed forces. Some Chinese defence scientists working with Canadian scholars have used the names of what appear to be non-existent civilian institutions rather than citing their military credentials in joint publications. Collaborative work with Canada has included advances in secure communications and satellite-image processing, technologies that have civilian and military value.

A report this week by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found three Canadian universities among the global top 10 in publishing joint research with Chinese military scholars. The institute tabulated 687 academic papers co-authored by Canadian academics with Chinese defence researchers.

Universities said federal authorities determine which foreign researchers are allowed into Canada.

“We rely on the Government of Canada to evaluate security considerations in offering study permits,” University of Calgary spokesman Drew Scherban said in a statement. The university “is committed to academic freedom and does not regulate the areas of research pursued by its faculty or graduate students,” he said.

But the Canadian political establishment has had little to say about the issue – including Minster of Public Safety Ralph Goodale, who on Tuesday did not mention China or Canadian universities, saying in response to a question in Ottawa that he would not discuss what he called “operational details.”

“We have organizations such as the RCMP and CSIS – our police and security organizations – that are very alert to every kind of risk that could threaten Canadians and they take all the necessary steps to investigate those risks and make sure that Canadians are kept safe,” Mr. Goodale said.

Canada’s spy agency, however, was more forthcoming.

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Universities are among the institutions CSIS routinely meets “to advise them of potential threats to the security and interests of Canada, and to provide unclassified briefings regarding the nature of specific threats,” spokesman John Townsend said in a statement.

“Canadian industry and academic institutions are world leaders in various economic, technological and research sectors that are of interest to foreign states. These states seek to acquire Canadian technology and expertise by utilizing a range of traditional and non-traditional intelligence collection tradecraft,” he added.

Such “covert exploitation,” he said, “may come at the expense of Canada’s national interests, including lost jobs and revenues, and a diminished competitive global advantage.”

In the United States, the Department of Justice on Tuesday warned that Chinese intelligence agents used hackers and “co-opted company insiders” to pilfer aerospace industrial technologies. Several people referred to as Chinese intelligence officers and their co-conspirators were charged.

“The threat posed by Chinese government-sponsored hacking activity is real and relentless,” John Brown, FBI special agent in charge of the San Diego field office, said in a statement.

With reports from Michelle Zilio in Ottawa and Colin Freeze in Toronto

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