Canada wakes up to China, Russia, Iran threat to intellectual property

It is as if a light went on within the Canadian government this month as it took steps to tighten control over the risk presented by China, Russia, and Iran to sensitive research being funded by the federal government. With its “New Policy on Sensitive Technology Research and Affiliations of Concern,” Canada named more than 100 entities, all of which fall under the rubric of presenting a high risk to the country’s national security. The policy includes documents that inform research entities desiring government funding around sensitive technology areas that there are new swim lanes in effect.

The effort highlights how openness in academia and research can make those research entities “target for foreign influence.” The policy cites dual-use technology in areas such as AI, quantum computing, and genetic engineering as examples of areas of concern.

The document states that research grant and funding applications submitted by a university or affiliated research institution to federal fund-granting bodies in Canada that involving research in sensitive technology areas won’t get any money should they partner with any foreign entity on the list that is deemed a threat to Canada’s national security. “To support this, Canada is releasing two lists that provide clear, defined, and transparent guidance so that researchers can quickly and efficiently determine if these new requirements apply to their research,” the policy states.

Those two documents provide an explicit framework for avoiding the kind of brain drain that China in particular has excelled at for decades, sliding into agreements with Western academics and industry to gain access to cutting-edge technology for its own purposes. Indeed, while a handful of Russian and Iranian outlets are noted in the long blacklist, by far the most numerous cited are Chinese.

Canada moves to protect sensitive technology research areas

In the document “Sensitive Technology Research Areas”  Canada identifies areas of research which “may be of interest to foreign state, state-sponsored, and non-state actors, seeking to misappropriate Canada’s technological advantages to our detriment.”

Non-funding provisions are explained within the primer “Named Research Organizations,” which is an integral part of the program:

“… Applications submitted by a university or affiliated research institution to the federal granting councils — the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada — and the Canada Foundation for Innovation that involve research to advance a sensitive technology research area will not be funded if any of the researchers involved in activities supported by the grant are affiliated with, or in receipt of funding or in-kind support, from a university, research institute or laboratory connected to military, national defense, or state-security entities that could pose a risk to Canada’s national security.”

China takes exception to being named a threat

China has had its hand in global research and development efforts funded through public entities, such as universities, for decades. The Canadian media outlet, The Globe & Mail, published a report in January 2023 that contained research from Strider Technologies, detailing a plethora of Canadian universities whose academics published more than 240 joint papers on a variety of topics, many of which would fall into the “sensitive” bailiwick.  

The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa, issued a statement on January 16 in which it noted that China is “strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposes this, and has made serious demarch to Canada.” The statement goes on to highlight how China spends billions of dollars on global research.

It concludes with the admonishment that Canada is engaging in a “small yard with high fences” approach to research, and that China hopes Canada will, “correct its wrong practice, discard the ideological bias and cold war mentality, stop suppressing Chinese academic institutions by abusing tools such as the above-mentioned lists.”

The US National Counterintelligence and Security Center has published a series of awareness materials that highlight the variety of ways in which foreign intelligence and governments target intellectual property and personnel with access to sensitive information.

Limiting its access will limit China’s ability to gain sensitive information

With such materials in hand, it is plain to see that China is correct; its ability to engage in open and unfettered research, harvesting such via their numerous programs, to include the 1,000 Talent Program will be deleteriously affected. Without joint research, China will have a harder time (not impossible, mind you) in engaging, leveraging, harvesting, and exploiting the research from the best and the brightest of the West.

“Nation states, like the People’s Republic of China, are aggressively targeting research universities to leverage their facilities, talent, and know how to enhance their own domestic military and commercial endeavors,” says Greg Levesque, CEO of Strider Technologies. “They exploit the open scientific collaboration process to gain unparalleled access to military and dual-use technology for their own benefit.”

The Canadian government did not ban foreign funding of research, a distinction that is worthy of praise, as the focus is on entities receiving Canadian funding. Canada encourages “Canadian universities to implement a similar enhanced posture for all research partnerships and collaborations in sensitive technology research areas.”

This approach is similar to executive memorandum NSPM-33 in the United States; if there is no government funding, the crack in the proverbial door is open. It’s an initiative that “the US government should judiciously implement … to protect our open system of scientific collaboration,” according to Levesque.

Loophole in security edicts seeking to bar malign nation-states

My admittedly jaundiced eye sees a loophole waiting to be exploited by the identified trio of countries, namely the proffering of endowments, big checks, and lucrative joint research agreements. Any of these may be sufficient to entice Western entities to forego local government funding in order to receive greater funding from a foreign entity. The adage that “money talks” still applies.

In a nutshell, such initiatives as Canada’s are a good start but there is more to do and the task ahead for CISOs could be defined as “clear as mud,” especially for those who lack visibility into the relationship and funding sides of the equation within an organization.

Such situations may place organizations between a rock and a hard spot, as they must rejig their networks to ensure that sensitive research, or research that receives government funding, is sequestered from inclusion in any international engagements or partnerships.

China (and others) aren’t slowing down, and ultimately steps such as this by Canada are mere speedbumps. Let there be no doubt, these nations will continue to attempt to save research and development operating expenses through the open and clandestine acquisition of intellectual property, a practice which frankly, should have as its avatar a frog leaping over a stack of technological advances.

Aerospace and Defense Industry, Data and Information Security, Government, Government IT

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