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FBI, NIH Continue Biomed Research Theft Probe

by Chris Brook on Wednesday November 6, 2019

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A report in the New York Times this week revealed how widespread the theft of biomedical secrets is at U.S. universities and research institutions.

While the Federal Bureau of Investigation's interest in Chinese intellectual property theft is well established at this point - FBI Director Christopher Wray said over the summer the agency had nearly 1,000 open investigations into attempted IP theft - there's been an increased scrutiny paid to biomedical data of late.

According to the New York Times this week, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in particular are ramping up research around the theft of biomedical secrets for China’s greater good.

While the fact the agencies are looking into the theft isn’t necessarily new – the NIH launched its effort to combat the problem in 2018 – this week we got updated statistics on just how many cases are being investigated at biomedical institutes today.

According to the Times, 71 biomed institutions are looking into 180 individual cases involving the potential theft of IP.

Naturally, as they're involved in an ongoing investigation, none of the facilities nor the identities of the researchers were named in the report.

According to the paper, a dozen scientists have either resigned or been fired from the universities and research centers in wake of the investigations. In most cases, the individuals either filed patents in China on work funded by the U.S. government and owned by U.S. facilities or they set up labs in China that were essentially mimicking U.S. research.

Among the data believed to have been taken are scientific ideas, designs, devices, and data and methods that could lead to new treatments or tools.

The MD Anderson Cancer Center, a cancer research and treatment center in Houston, Tex. fired three senior researchers earlier this year after the NIH informed the facility that five of its researchers had been tied to efforts to steal American research for China’s benefit.

Just as the NIH suggested, a search of the employees' emails yielded evidence that one forwarded a confidential research proposal to a contact in China. Another email suggested a scientist there sent data and research to China in exchange for an appointment under the Thousand Talents Program, an initiative launched in 2008 to recruit experts willing to work in China with senior titles from well-known international companies and financial institutions.

At the time the terminations were complemented with news that the NIH had sent letters - compliance reports summarizing the investigations - to 55 medical research institutions.

According to the Times, that letter was one of 18,000 letters sent out by the NIH last year to administrators concerned about the possible theft of intellectual property.

Tags: Industry Insights, Healthcare

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Chris Brook

Chris Brook is the editor of Data Insider. He is a technology journalist with a decade of experience writing about information security, hackers, and privacy. Chris has attended many infosec conferences and has interviewed hackers and security researchers. Prior to joining Digital Guardian he helped launch Threatpost, an independent news site which is a leading source of information about IT and business security for hundreds of thousands of professionals worldwide.