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State Threats in Academia

Foreign governments could use their intelligence services and their economic power to target your research. Secure your success

Last Updated 22 January 2024

The Threat

UK research is at risk of misappropriation by certain states for their political, economic, technological, and military gain. If they obtain it, your research could be used to increase their military or technological advantage over the UK, damaging your reputation.  In the worst case, they could even apply your research to target and harm their own population.

In December 2020, a UK newspaper reported that a laboratory at a UK University - part-funded by the UK Ministry of Defence - working on quantum technology, had nurtured a link with the Chinese military university - the National University of Defence Technology (NUDT). The article claimed that a Chinese national had "unrivalled access to the lab's most sensitive projects" and that the "NUDT had paid for his studies in the UK".

You may not think your research is sensitive or dual-use, but state’s technology targets are wide reaching – from ‘traditional’ defence and aerospace to new and emerging technologies, such as advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence and data science.

States will target research institutions of all sizes, deploying their cyber, human, and technical capabilities to steal ideas, information, and techniques. State-backed actors will also subvert the collaborative nature of the academic sector to achieve their state’s aims.

You may not see the hand of a state. State actors such as the Russian and Chinese governments can compel their citizens and organisations – including academics and research institutes - by law to work with intelligence agencies, willingly or not, to meet state requirements. Other states may also target academia through intermediaries if this meets their aims.

In 2014, a UK university provided a course on cyber security, which included modules on how to hack into secure IT networks. A national newspaper published details of two North Korean students who were studying on the course and allegedly had links to political figures in the North Korean state, shortly after the hack of Sony by alleged North Korean cyber actors.

How NPSA can help

The UK’s academia sector is under threat, but NPSA, the UK’s newly launched National Protective Security Authority, is here to help you to secure your success.  Visit our Trusted Research guidance for academia to learn more about how you can protect your work.

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