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Swiss intelligence service warns of Chinese and Russian espionage at universities

The FIS does not mention possible US espionage. It also fails to provide concrete evidence and facts that could support its threat analysis in connection with certain states.

Published: February 10, 2023, 8:08 am

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    The topic of academic infiltration by China has also occasionally come into the media spotlight in recent months. At Zurich universities, Chinese researchers are now being eyed more critically: The suspicion is that they might be working for a secret service.

    According to Article 7 of the Chinese Intelligence Law, “all organisations and citizens must support and cooperate with the national intelligence service”, the Sunday edition of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) reported.

    Swiss universities have apparently become more of a target for espionage recently. “China has set up a system to collect information from the Western scientific community,” Jean-Marc Rickli said recently. He deals with global risks at the Geneva-based Center for Security Policy.

    Several universities therefore work closely with the intelligence service: “There is contact with representatives of the NDB and the cantonal police. These can be approached if we suspect espionage. They are also available for exchanges and give tips on prevention,” the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland, for example, told the NZZ am Sonntag.

    Brochure on spying

    The Swiss Intelligence Service (NDB) also apparently sees increased danger. It recently published the brochure Technopol.

    The title of the brochure is: “Akademische Welt im Visier”. The intelligence service hoped to draw attention to the dangers of espionage at universities. It pointed out how universities and universities of applied sciences are always at risk of having their knowledge and technologies misused by “authoritarian” states.

    “Despite publicly accessible research results, universities and research institutes are threatened by espionage and proliferation activities,” the brochure warned.

    The latter is understood to mean the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – i.e. nuclear, biological and chemical weapons – and their delivery systems. These include ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and drones.

    The same applies to materials and technologies that can also be used to manufacture weapons. The FIS brochure described, among other things, what espionage via academia could look like in practice. This was shown by means of several case studies.

    One example given is that of a Chinese guest researcher in Europe working in the field of space technology on projects for the European Space Agency (ESA). The researcher works for a physics professor whose research is civilian but can also be used for military purposes.

    The Chinese researcher claims to work for the Chinese Academy of Sciences (a civilian institute), but in fact she works for a military research institution.

    The FIS also pointed to false Linkedin profiles, for example, which the Chinese intelligence service has used to contact potentially interesting people.

    According to the FIS, universities must be particularly careful with academics or students from “authoritarian” states. This is because these states appeal to the loyalty of their nationals to serve the homeland.

    “They should put the knowledge they have acquired abroad at the disposal of the state, for example by participating in research projects to develop weapons systems,” the brochure noted. Many of these students were dependent on their home state, which often financed their studies but expected something in return.

    What is striking about the FIS brochure is that it places a special focus on Russia and China. Repeatedly, examples of academics from these states are cited to show how great the danger of espionage from these countries was. Conversely, examples remain unmentioned of US researchers conducting espionage at Swiss universities on behalf of the intelligence services.

    Why not US researchers?

    Against this background, Transition News contacted the intelligence service and wanted to know how it had arrived at this assessment:

    • Does the FIS have concrete indications or evidence that espionage by Chinese academics at Swiss universities has increased in recent years?
    • Conversely, how does the intelligence service assess the danger of US students/academics carrying out espionage at Swiss universities on behalf of US intelligence services?

    The FIS did not answer any of the questions in detail. Isabelle Graber, media spokesperson for the intelligence service, commented to Transition News: “The Federal Intelligence Service (FIS) is a security policy instrument of Switzerland with a clearly defined mandate by law. Its core tasks are prevention and situation assessment for the attention of political decision-makers. In this context, the FIS deals with the early detection and combating of terrorism, violent extremism, espionage, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their carrier technology, cyber attacks on critical infrastructures and security policy processes abroad.

    “The FIS does not comment on individual cases or on its operational findings and procedures. The FIS also does not comment on the number of cases of espionage at Swiss universities by Chinese academics/students. Within the framework of its legal mandate, taking into account the current situation and within the limits of the resources at its disposal, the FIS handles all cases of prohibited intelligence of which it becomes aware. Early detection and countering espionage (including industrial espionage) are central tasks of the FIS. You can find further information on the FIS’s fight against espionage in the fact sheet ‘What does the FIS do against espionage’.”

    It is important to know that individual Swiss universities have repeatedly come under criticism in the past for their close cooperation with the US security apparatus. In 2013, for example, it became public that the US Department of Defence was financing numerous studies at Swiss universities.

    It is also known that Swiss universities work more closely with the US. In the ranking of countries with which Swiss science cooperates, China is only in seventh place behind the US.

    Against this background, the online outlet also wanted to know from the FIS whether there was a greater danger of espionage from the US than from China. However, the FIS did not give any information on this. The FIS also did not comment on questions about the FIS’s cooperation with Swiss universities.

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