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Foreign interference under the spotlight at Australian universities

The government has acted following concerns about China's influence on campuses.

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Visitors walk past a screen showing a demonstration of facial recognition software

Facial recognition technology is allegedly used to track minority groups in China.Credit: Thomas Peter/Reuters

The Australian government says it will establish an expert committee to detect and respond to cyberattacks, intellectual-property theft and other strikes against universities by foreign governments or groups. The move comes amid growing concerns from some politicians and academics about foreign influence at Australian campuses.

The committee will also focus on the transparency of foreign collaborations and “prevent the transfer of defence and dual-use technology to those who may use it contrary to Australia’s interests”, said the minister for education, Dan Tehan, in a speech announcing the committee on 28 August.

Although Tehan did not name any countries, his announcement follows several recent incidents that have raised concerns about China's influence on campuses. They include a massive breach of the computer systems at Canberra-based Australian National University in June. Security experts have suggested that hackers in China are the main suspect, according to media reports.

At a government budget hearing in 2017, the head of Australia’s intelligence agency, Duncan Lewis, also revealed that the agency was concerned about foreign interference in universities. He did not give details about what activities had been detected.

Others, including the Vice Chancellor of the University of Sydney Michael Spence, have warned against anti-China “hysteria”. During a radio interview this week, Spence said there are many benefits from the country's large number of Chinese students and its strong research collaborations with Chinese universities.

Australia is not the only country where such concerns have been raised. There has been growing scrutiny of foreign-born academics, particularly those of Chinese origin, at universities in the United States.

The Australian committee, called The University Foreign Interference Taskforce, will include representatives from universities, national security organizations and the education department. It will develop guidelines for how universities should deal with foreign interference, due to be finalized in November.

“The scope of the task force shows that the problem is widespread and deep,” says Clive Hamilton, a Canberra-based public-policy researcher at Charles Sturt University, who has investigated Chinese influence on Australian research organizations.

“Universities have been in denial,” he says. “Scientists themselves need to be compelled to consider the national-security implications of what they are doing and how they're going about it.”

But Catriona Jackson, the chief executive of industry group Universities Australia in Canberra, said institutions had sought advice from the government and security agencies on foreign interference for decades.

AI research

A report released this week by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a policy think-tank in Canberra, says the company Koala AI Technology in Chengdu, may have benefited from research that its founder, Chinese-national Heng Tao Shen, did while he was a professor at the University of Queensland. Surveillance and facial-recognition technologies developed by the company are allegedly used to track members of the Uighur people in northwest China, according to the report.

A spokesperson for the university, where Shen is still an honorary professor, says it was looking into the matter.

Heng Tao Shen has been asked to comment on suggestions his company's technology is being using to track members of the Uyghur people — and on the accusations that research he did while at the University of Queensland contributed to this technology. Nature is awaiting his response.

Following an May report by Human Rights Watch, a non-government organization and media reports, two other Australian universities — the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and Curtin University in Perth — launched investigations into possible links between some of their researchers and programmes or companies funded by the Chinese government. The organizations in question have also developed surveillance and facial-recognition technologies allegedly used by the Chinese government to track members of the Uyghur people.

A spokesperson from UTS told Nature that, based on its review so far, there is no link between institution's research and the technology referred to in the Human Rights Watch report. A Curtin University spokesperson said that although one of their researchers provided technical advice to Chinese research teams, they had not received any money. The university also said it is reviewing its processes around research collaborations.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02588-3

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