British intelligence launches initiative to safeguard research universities against cyberespionage

The head of Britain’s MI5 urged researcher universities to enhance security measures to protect frontier research and national interests.

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Britain’s domestic intelligence agency MI5 Director General Ken McCallum issued a warning to the country’s leading research universities about targeted threats from foreign states undermining national security.

The briefing, led by McCallum, targeted the vice-chancellors of the Russell Group, representing the nation’s top 24 universities, and was attended by Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden and Interim CEO of the National Cyber Security Centre Felicity Oswald.

Dowden emphasised hostile actors’ active targeting of universities and the urgent need to safeguard sensitive frontier research. He announced the government’s initiative to consult with the sector to enhance support for universities and bolster security measures to protect their cutting-edge research.

Proposed measures include potential security vetting of key researchers by MI5, focusing on academic work with dual civilian-military applications. This move aims to facilitate intelligence briefings for senior officials to enhance institutional safety.

While no specific foreign states were named, concerns about espionage, particularly from China, seeking intellectual property for both commercial and military gains, were highlighted.

This caution follows an internal security review that identified overt and covert tactics by countries like China to acquire intellectual property. These tactics require increased funding for universities to bolster their research security capabilities. Measures may also include improving transparency regarding funding sources for academic institutions.

The discussion echoes similar initiatives in the USA, where efforts are underway to safeguard against misuse or theft of critical technologies through programs like the National Counterintelligence and Security Center’s Safeguarding Science initiative.

The consultation, which will be launched in the summer, aims to enhance collaboration while developing new security measures, aligning with global efforts to address espionage challenges in research sectors. As the UK seeks to uphold its academic prowess amidst evolving threats, cooperation between government, academia, and industry emerges as a cornerstone in safeguarding research integrity and national security.