Detecting Academic National Security Threats

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The Canadian government is following in the footsteps of it’s American counterpart and has introduced national security assessments for recipients of government natural science (NSERC) funding. Such assessments will occur when proposed research projects are deemed sensitive and where private funding is also used to facilitate the research in question. Social science (SSHRC) and health (CIHR) funding will be subject to these assessments in the near future.

I’ve written, elsewhere, about why such assessments are likely fatally flawed. In short, they will inhibit student training, will cast suspicion upon researchers of non-Canadian nationalities (and especially upon researchers who hold citizenship with ‘competitor nations’ such as China, Russia, and Iran), and may encourage researchers to hide their sources of funding to be able to perform their required academic duties while also avoiding national security scrutiny.

To be clear, such scrutiny often carries explicit racist overtones, has led to many charges but few convictions in the United States, and presupposes that academic units or government agencies can detect a human-based espionage agent. Further, it presupposes that HUMINT-based espionage is a more serious, or equivalent, threat to research productivity as compared to cyber-espionage. As of today, there is no evidence in the public record in Canada that indicates that the threat facing Canadian academics is equivalent to the invasiveness of the assessments, nor that human-based espionage is a greater risk than cyber-based means.

To the best of my knowledge, while HUMINT-based espionage does generate some concerns they pale in comparison to the risk of espionage linked to cyber-operations.

However, these points are not the principal focus of this post. I recently re-read some older work by Bruce Schneier that I think nicely casts why asking scholars to engage in national security assessments of their own, and their colleagues’, research is bound to fail. Schneier wrote the following in 2007, when discussing the US government’s “see something, say something” campaign:

[t]he problem is that ordinary citizens don’t know what a real terrorist threat looks like. They can’t tell the difference between a bomb and a tape dispenser, electronic name badge, CD player, bat detector, or trash sculpture; or the difference between terrorist plotters and imams, musicians, or architects. All they know is that something makes them uneasy, usually based on fear, media hype, or just something being different.

Replace “terrorist” with “national security” threat and we get to approximately the same conclusions. Individuals—even those trained to detect and investigate human intelligence driven espionage—can find it incredibly difficult to detect human agent-enabled espionage. Expecting academics, who are motivated to develop international and collegial relationships, who may be unable to assess the national security implications of their research, and who are being told to abandon funding while the government fails to supplement that which is abandoned, guarantees that this measure will fail.

What will that failure mean, specifically? It will involve incorrect assessments and suspicion being aimed at scholars from ‘competitor’ and adversary nations. Scholars will question whether they should work with a Chinese, Russian, or Iranian scholar even when they are employed in a Western university let alone when they are in a non-Western institution. I doubt these same scholars will similarly question whether they should work with Finish, French, or British scholars. Nationality and ethnicity lenses will be used to assess who are the ‘right’ people with whom to collaborate.

Failure will not just affect professors. It will also extend to affect undergraduate and graduate students, as well as post-doctoral fellows and university staff. Already, students are questioning what they must do in order to prove that they are not considered national security threats. Lab staff and other employees who have access to university research environments will similarly be placed under an aura of suspicion. We should not, we must not, create an academy where these are the kinds of questions with which our students and colleagues and staff must grapple.

Espionage is, it must be recognized, a serious issue that faces universities and Canadian businesses more broadly. The solution cannot be to ignore it and hope that the activity goes away. However, the response to such threats must demonstrate necessity and proportionality and demonstrably involve evidence-based and inclusive policy making. The current program that is being rolled out by the Government of Canada does not meet this set of conditions and, as such, needs to be repealed.