Are American Institutions the Breeding Ground for Intellectual Property Theft?

By: Phillip Jester, Summer Blogger

https://pixabay.com/en/computer-security-padlock-hacker-1591018/A recent White House report accused China, the world’s second-largest economy, of engaging in aggressive “acts, policies, and practices that fall outside of global norms and rules.” The report highlights a new threat posed by China: the presence of “Chinese Nationals” serving as “Non-Traditional Information Collectors” at American universities.  The White House alleges that the Chinese State has created educational programs which encourage science and engineering students to master important military technologies in order to share such technologies with Beijing.

More than 100 American universities currently collaborate with Confucius Institutes, educational organization that are sponsored by China’s Communist Party.  Lawmakers and intelligence officials are now speaking out against the role of Confucius Institutes as possible “spying outposts.” In February, Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) Director Christopher Wray stated that Chinese spies are being planted in American schools in order to exploit “very open research and development” environments.  The exploitation of open educational environments may already be paying off.  Chinese Scientists returning from American laboratories have played a key role in the development of hypersonic glide systems, systems capable of penetrating any current missile defense.

Over the last month, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex) has been particularly vocal regarding the infiltration occurring at American universities.  Senator Cruz has blamed the Chinese government’s involvement for the theft of dual-use research, research which will benefit both the Chinese economy and military.  In response to the alleged theft of intellectual property at American universities, Senator Cruz has proposed a bill named the Stop Higher Espionage and Theft Act of 2018.  Cruz’s bill would give the Director of the FBI the ability to designate certain foreign actors as “foreign intelligence threat(s) to education.”  The Bill additionally requires universities who work with foreign intelligence threats to report and disclose any financial interactions they have with such threats.

In an effort to show the influence of Chinese nationals in American universities, the recent White House report cites various statistics.  In the United States, over 50 percent of PhD students studying engineering, computer science, math, and statistics are foreign-based students.  At least halfof these foreign students are Chinese.  Additionally, foreign students are involved in more than half of patents filed by American universities.  Overall, statistics cited by the White House and Congressional leaders show only the involvement of foreign students in STEM-related fields at universities.  Not a single statistic is provided to explain the reason why so many foreign students choose to study science at United States academic institutions.  Although more information is needed to understand the impact of foreign students, lawmakers are continuing to seek greater oversight at American institutions.

Even though the protection of intellectual property is necessary for the United States to maintain its economic and military dominance, we must not point fingers aimlessly.  Even if some foreign students steal the intellectual property made available at American institutions, it may be just as likely that foreign students contribute to the scientific research that gives the United States a competitive edge over foreign nations.  Rather than demonize all foreign students, our government must strive to identify the international institutions engaging in aggressive and improper acts of American intellectual property theft.  The identification of such actors can begin with an investigation of Confucius Institutes and other foreign programs. Otherwise, American institutions risk ostracizing benevolent foreign academics who contribute to the American intellectual advancement.

* Phillip Jester is a second-year law student at Wake Forest University.  Before law school, Phillip double-majored in Political Science and Economics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  After graduation, Phillip intends to practice litigation.