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Senator Says U.S. Not Doing Enough to Prevent Foreign IP Theft

by Chris Brook on Tuesday January 22, 2019

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A senator is questioning whether the federal government is doing enough to identify and mitigate threats to intellectual property.

With the nation deep in the throes of a trade war, politicians are calling on the government to do a better job safeguarding U.S. institutions from having their intellectual property stolen.

Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote a letter to both the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation last week asking what the departments are doing to combat IP theft threats to universities, especially those that receive government funding in order to conduct research.

The letter, addressed to the DOJ's Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker and the FBI's Director Christopher Wray, cites a statement by the director of the National Institutes of Health last summer on threats posed by foreign entities to the integrity of U.S. biomedical research.

Dr. Francis S. Collins, the director of the agency, warned at the time of increased risks to research like foreign government funded research, the diversion of IP in grant applications, and the sharing of sensitive information, all things that can lead to an erosion in trust and confidentiality.

“The threats to our academic institutions from foreign governments are well known. Our government must take all reasonable and necessary steps to protect the integrity of taxpayer-funded research,” Grassley wrote, adding that there also needs to be better communication between the NIH, DOJ, and other agencies.

Grassley is looking to learn more about how the DOJ and FBI carries out background checks on researchers and universities that receive federal funds and steps the DOJ and FBI have taken to inform research institutions about foreign threats. He’s also hoping to learn exactly how many times researchers carrying out federally funded research failed to disclose foreign government funding, how many times they've investigated or prosecuted researchers who were agents of a foreign government, and how many times they've caught researchers who stole IP created under taxpayer-funded research.

In a separate letter (.PDF) also sent last week, to the Department of Health and Human Services' Inspector General Daniel Levinson, Grassley asked the department for a five year history into how its handled foreign threats to research.

Grassley was especially critical in both letters that the federal government isn't doing enough to vet individuals who work on federally funded research.

"[The] approach raises questions as to whether the federal government is taking the necessary steps to proactively identify and mitigate threats to research," Grassley wrote.

Grassley, who’s the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the Committee on the Judiciary, has been a fierce critic of China’s pursuit of U.S. technologies and the U.S.'s stance on espionage and IP theft.

In a hearing held in December on China's non-traditional espionage against the U.S., he called the threat pervasive and said something needed to be done.

"In simple terms, it’s called cheating. And it’s only getting worse... Nobody is in favor of billions in American IP being stolen. Nobody supports researchers violating the terms of their government grants in favor of a foreign government,” the senator said, “We all should condemn cyberattacks on government and private sector information and systems. The question is: how can we counter these activities? I hope we can come to an answer together."

Tags: IP theft

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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.