Various Swiss media are reporting incidents of espionage at Swiss universities, based on information from the Swiss news service FIS. Foreign secret services should therefore try to get sensitive information through contact with students and researchers. The FIS therefore has one at the beginning of the year Awareness Brochure released.
SRF has with the German intelligence expert Dr. Christopher Nehring spoke about this danger at universities.
Lecturer at the University of Potsdam
dr Christopher Nehring is a secret service expert and guest lecturer at the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation’s media program for Southeast Europe, with a focus on disinformation, secret services and the media. He recently published a book about secret service murders.
SRF News: According to the FIS, students and researchers are popular targets for foreign intelligence services. Is it possible to quantify the extent of this infiltration?
Christopher Nehring: No, that cannot be quantified seriously. The general problem with espionage is that you don’t know how many cases you’re dealing with. In addition, the efforts of intelligence services often take place over a long period of time, making it difficult to count unequivocally.
There is no danger from students.
In its warning to the universities, the FIS speaks primarily of Chinese efforts. Russia is certainly also active in the Ukraine war – are there other countries?
At the universities, there are also intelligence activities by states that politically monitor their emigrants and diaspora abroad. Like Iran, for example, but also Turkey and even India.
Are there specific disciplines within the natural sciences that are particularly attractive to these intelligence services?
Anything that is of military use is actually of interest. And that often doesn’t have to happen directly, but also happens indirectly. In general, one can say that it is certainly biochemistry, engineering and other natural sciences, although it is often also about cooperation between local and foreign institutes, which are then used for intelligence purposes.
The biggest problem is that the actions remain undetected.
Do these actions always come from the intelligence services themselves, or do students also have to be wary of Chinese or Russian fellow students?
There is no danger from students. The results obtained at this scientific level are of little interest to secret services. On a student basis, these espionage services are more concerned with creating long-term perspectives for later use. For example, with a guest stay in China, during which it is then determined whether the person can later be used for intelligence purposes.
What is the biggest problem in defending against such attempts?
Probably that they remain undetected. There is a lack of public experience that a harmless LinkedIn request from a Chinese trade magazine can already be a first initiating action. It also often happens that researchers wake up too late, only after they have already offered a hand. Simply because they are not used to it. The greatest problem is the lack of awareness of these dangers.
What can students and researchers do to increase security, what can the universities themselves?
You can develop this awareness by the universities taking over the knowledge of these methods and integrating them into their processes. This certainly includes protecting your IT well. But also the understanding of how modern secret services work. Educational institutions must also raise awareness of China and Russia itself. We must understand that these are not liberal democracies. Secret service work has a completely different status than in Europe. Finally, we at the universities should know who to contact in the event of a suspected attack and how to behave.
Michael Fröhlich conducted the interview.