China has continued to steal intellectual property from other countries, according to a report out this week — but one cyber security expert says that’s not the real issue.
A report released this week by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says that China is clearly, or likely to be, in breach of its bilateral cyber espionage agreements.
And it warns that if Australia doesn’t ramp up the pressure, China is unlikely to stop.
The Morrison government is looking at tightening laws to curb the export of sensitive technologies that could be used by foreign militaries, amid broader concerns over national security risks in the research sector.
The defence department has told an inquiry it is working on ways to toughen up the export controls “while not unnecessarily restricting trade, research and international collaboration”.
Parliament’s security committee is investigating how universities and research bodies are dealing with foreign interference risks, after the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, agreed to calls from Coalition backbenchers to launch an inquiry.
In a submission, the defence department said Australian universities and academics were “attractive targets for foreign interference given their access to sensitive information, research in a range of fields and the resulting intellectual property”.
The Australian defence force could lose its technological advantage, it said, if sensitive research and its potential use were not properly “protected from foreign interference and potential adversaries”.
The government publishes a list of defence and strategic goods that are regulated under existing laws. They include items or technology that is designed or adapted for military purposes, but also a broader category known as “dual use” goods.
These are commercially useful equipment or technology that may also be used as military components or in the development of defence systems or even weapons of mass destruction.
The defence department said a 2018 review had found holes in the legislation, “including the lack of control over the transfer of sensitive technology to foreign entities in Australia”. Defence revealed it was currently working on changes to the existing rules.
“Defence is engaging with government, industry, research and university representatives to develop proposals to address gaps and ensure legislative amendments strengthen controls over technology transfers while not unnecessarily restricting trade, research and international collaboration,” it said in a submission to the inquiry.
Defence gave credit to universities and researchers for regularly asking it for technical advice to understand whether their activities were regulated under the existing laws.
The department said it had noticed that the Australian higher education and research sector had “started to develop a better understanding of the impacts of foreign interference, undisclosed foreign influence, data theft and espionage”.
“Building capacity to identify and mitigate security threats will take time and support from national security agencies.”
The intelligence agency Asio told the inquiry it was “aware of researchers and their families who have been threatened, coerced or intimidated by actors seeking to have their sensitive research provided to a foreign state”.
Asio said it was also “aware that some universities have been threatened through financial coercion should critical research continue”.
It also referred to “instances where academics have self-censored their course material in order to avoid adverse outcomes such as cuts to foreign funding or threats from individuals who may be linked to a foreign government”.
But Asio said having effective mechanisms in place to counter foreign interference and espionage “does not need to come at the expense of the openness and international collaboration that is a hallmark of the higher education and research sector”.
The potential changes to export controls – flagged by the defence department – are not the only legislative move that could affect universities.
The home affairs department pointed to plans to designate higher education and research as a critical infrastructure sector – something that would allow universities to receive government help when hit with a major cyber-attack.
But universities may also be required to report cybersecurity incidents, under a bill Dutton introduced to parliament in December but which is yet to be debated.
“The proposed reforms to the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act 2018 could provide a legislative mechanism to impose mandatory obligations on the university sector, but this step would not be taken without significant industry consultation to determine if it is proportionate to the risks,” the home affairs department said in its submission.
Universities also face the potential cancellation of certain types of international agreements under the government’s new foreign veto bill, which cleared the Senate just before Christmas.
Universities Australia argues universities have worked collaboratively with the government to strengthen their resilience to foreign interference – including through a special taskforce set up a year and a half ago.
But in a plea against overreach, the peak body told the inquiry the country “cannot afford to isolate its education and research systems but must find ways to collaborate internationally in ways that effectively and proportionately balance national security with the social and economic benefits”.
It said universities had systems in place to comply with the rules on sensitive defence technologies, while “feedback from government officials suggests an abundance of caution and over-reporting to government agencies, rather than a dearth”.
Coalition backbenchers pushed for the inquiry by parliament’s joint committee on intelligence and security after The Australian newspaper published a series of reports that raised concerns about a Chinese research collaboration program known as the Thousand Talents Plan.
Government backbenchers also cited concerns about upholding free speech on university campuses, the higher education sector’s increasing reliance on revenue from overseas students, and the presence of Confucius Institutes – Chinese language and culture centres – in some universities.
The inquiry is likely to hold public hearings before reporting back to Dutton in July.
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