Sabo points out that the university world is particularly vulnerable to espionage and pressure from other countries.
Higher education institutions are one of the sectors we helped with advice because we saw that there were some shortcomings, says press secretary Gabriel Fernstedt.
Foreign actors can try to get involved in business for various reasons and in different ways. It could be about, for example, trying to influence researchers, teachers or students and in this way control the work. It can also be related to the desire to come and take advantage of the results of research that has not yet been published.
We know, for example, that attempts have been made to recruit people within universities and colleges as agents to obtain information, says Gabriel Fernstedt.
Increasing problems in Swedish universities
Unwanted foreign interference is a growing problem in Swedish universities, something that in Säpo is linked to the rising tensions in the world. The procedures are usually performed by Russia, China or Iran.
Gabriel Wernstedt cannot comment on whether the recent development in Europe, with the massive Russian invasion of Ukraine, increases the risk of espionage and pressure on Swedish universities.
– There is nothing I can go into.
At Säpo, the risk of foreign interference was assessed to be particularly high in international cooperation within, among other things, cutting-edge pharmaceutical research and technical research.
If other countries come across innovations in these areas, they can generate economic and security policy benefits.
KI improves security protection
Karolinska Institutet, KI, builds procedures and structures to enhance the ability to identify and manage risks related to international cooperation.
– We are working with this now, like many other universities, both in Sweden and abroad. Among other things, it is about raising awareness in higher education institutions about how to conduct international cooperation in a risk-conscious manner, says Albin Gaunt, an international relations specialist at KI.
He sees many reasons why other countries, and then authoritarian regimes in particular, are interested in what is happening in Swedish universities.
In the vast majority of cases, cooperation is uncomplicated, and we have seen very few cases of foreign interference, but higher education institutions are central to the economy and society. We provide resources that may be of interest to government institutions in other countries.
Access to critics of the system
In addition to the type of foreign intervention where the goal is to create innovations or research results, he also sees a risk of foreign countries going through universities to reach critics of the system. A particularly vulnerable group, he says, is staff or students who have moved to Sweden.
Universities have always been places where ideas are developed in different ways and can be considered threatened by authoritarian regimes. Therefore, they may wish to track their compatriots in foreign universities.
Gabriel Wernstedt cannot determine whether Sabo sees instances of authoritarian regimes spying on citizens at universities. On the other hand, he asserts that such activities took place in Sweden.
We have seen several cases in which foreign powers have gone a long way in their attempts to spy on refugees. There are cases where attempts have been made to kill people who are in Sweden.
Dutch research center
Gabriel Wernstedt cannot give examples of cases where unwanted foreign interference has been discovered in Swedish universities. It can reveal weaknesses or methods that foreign powers can exploit.
However, there are many cases that are internationally known. At the beginning of the year, for example, one of the largest universities in the Netherlands chose to stop a human rights research center set up with research money from China. The university held that the money came with counterclaims threatening the independence of the research.
Albin Gaunt believes that while one should be aware of the dangers of unwanted foreign interference, the risks should not be exaggerated.
There is talk that in the universities we were a little naive in this matter, but we must beware of excessive paranoia. Research collaboration between individuals plays an important role in communications between countries, particularly during periods of conflict.
He stresses the importance of not suspicious of researchers because of their ancestors. He cited the US initiative “China’s initiative” as a deterrent. The initiative was intended to expose Chinese spies, but the process ended in February of this year, largely because it was considered racist.
We need to be very vigilant so that the openness, diversity and internationalization that characterize our higher education institutions are not harmed. There is concern about what international cooperation might mean for certain countries and this may lead us to avoid cooperation.
Guidance for researchers
Andreas Göthenberg, CEO of STINT, the institution for the internationalization of higher education and research, shares this fear.
STINT works with responsible internationalization, which also includes the issue of unwanted foreign interference. In 2020, they published Guidance document for researchers In collaboration with Lund University, Karolinska Institutet and the Royal Institute of Technology.
We never want to impede international collaboration, but we do want to reach out to individual researchers you might need to consider, says Andreas Guthenberg.
He does not see withdrawing cooperation with certain countries to avoid risks as a sustainable way forward. The solution, he says, is to raise awareness and establish routines that allow an individual to assess risks. Based on this, you can decide whether to start cooperation or how cooperation can be developed in a beneficial way.
To solve global problems, we must cooperate across borders. We know that international collaborations generally increase the quality of research.
‘You need to be thoughtful’
The STINT document on Responsible Internationalization lists a number of questions researchers should ask themselves before entering into an international collaboration, such as: Why would they want to work with me? Could there be hidden intentions? Is there a risk that the country’s government will influence the search results?
– If someone hears from you and wants to start a collaboration, it is easy to get flattered, but you need to be thoughtful. Andreas Göthenberg says it’s great to have confidence, but you should also be responsible in cooperating.
In his view, developments in the world have made international cooperation more complex.
– 20 years ago there were all the world’s leading researchers in democracies, but this is no longer the case. Vanguard researchers are now also run by researchers in authoritarian countries, and this means that new issues have emerged that must be taken into account.
Albin Gaunt believes that it would be very unfortunate if Swedish researchers chose not to cooperate with prominent researchers, for example, China because of the country’s government.
You sometimes hear some say that we cannot cooperate with those who do not share our values, but if we do not cooperate, we can never come close to each other. I don’t mean that we have to adapt to undemocratic values, but if we don’t talk to each other, we will end up in different bubbles, and that will be very unfortunate.
Attention in several countries
The challenges of unwanted foreign interference are of interest to many, both in Sweden and in other countries. Various types of initiatives are being implemented to increase knowledge about risks and support higher education institutions.
In the UK, for example, there has been a special expert team since last fall providing safety advice to researchers in the country before entering into an international collaboration. The group primarily targets researchers who collaborate with institutions in China.
In addition to these national initiatives, international initiatives to increase security protection are also being implemented in colleges and universities. And as recently as January this year, the European Commission launched one Toolbox To counter foreign interference in higher education institutions within the Union.
The publication reviews, for example, how researchers can reduce the risks of international cooperation and how higher education institutions can improve their cybersecurity. It also highlights positive examples from various EU countries and mentions, among other things, the STINT document on responsible internationalization.
Work with safety protection
From Säpo, it can be seen that there is a great desire in Swedish higher education institutions to increase security protection and prevent foreign actors from applying pressure or accessing confidential information.
– It’s going in the right direction, but we see that there is still a lot of work to do. We really want to stress the importance of working with security protection, says Gabriel Wernstedt.
According to Säpo, what every higher education institution should do in the first place is to analyze what or what in its higher education institutions need to be protected and against what. The next step is to review so that you have good protection for these companies and people. It is about physical protection in the form of locks, alarms, and safe spaces. It’s also about having good security in technical systems and good routines around information management.
– Finally, it is also about the security of individuals in the form of classified security protection services, security testing and loyal personnel.
Researchers feel lonely
Albin Gaunt believes that there is a need to raise awareness in departments and at the same time build competence in higher education institutions that scholars can turn to for support.
We know that many researchers feel lonely on these issues. Sometimes, perhaps, we should raise decisions to a higher level, when there is uncertainty.
He adds that even university administrations can feel lonely sometimes. He believes that higher education institutions will need closer support from national authorities in some decisions regarding international cooperation. At the same time, he reiterates that it is important not to spread undue suspicion towards researchers or actors from certain countries.
We must also be able to collaborate with researchers from countries that are judged to be at risk. If we only work with partners we know well before, we will miss new collaborations that can make a strong contribution to research.
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