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University of Copenhagen managers after campaign criticism: Spying threat should be taken seriously

You can discuss the exact wording of the campaign highlighting the threat of espionage against academia. But you shouldn’t dispute the underlying message: Danish universities need to do a better job at protecting knowledge and research.

The Danish Police Intelligence Service (PET) has launched a nationwide campaign to increase the focus on espionage threats directed at Danish research by foreign intelligence services. The campaign includes a number of posters that are on display at bus stops at several University of Copenhagen addresses. The PET campaign, and especially the posters, have been the focus of a lot of attention. And it has provoked a protest petition that has so far been signed by 197 employees and students at the Niels Bohr Institute.


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The campaign is provocative, and has a wording that has given rise to debate.

The PET campaign has an important message however. It points to a significantly altered security assessment. This applies to Denmark and to the entire Western world. More specifically, it means that the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) and the country’s other universities must – as in MUST – get better at identifying and protecting critical knowledge and research.

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It is important to emphasize that the threat to our research and the innovation that results from it – for example research articles and patents – is not only directed at specific fields with a potential dual-use, i.e. the potential for both a civilian and military application. Dual-use research is the focus of particular attention. But the threat is directed at all areas in which Denmark and the University of Copenhagen is a leader. We need to therefore also protect our researchers from having their preliminary and final results being published by others. We need to protect our researchers’ ideas, in the form of research applications, falling into the wrong hands. And we need to protect the innovation based on their research from being patented by others.

Transparency requires security

In relation to universities, PET has a particular focus on protecting the universities’ knowledge from ending up unlawfully in the hands of foreign states like Iran, China and Russia. When the three states are explicitly mentioned in PET’s campaign and in the UCPH material, it is based on PET intelligence on which countries, in particular, are attempting to gain illegal access to knowledge from Danish research environments. This is also evident in the threat assessment that PET issued in May last year.

As an Iranian, Russian, or Chinese citizen, you can unfortunately also be more exposed to influence attempts from, for example, the intelligence service of your home country than citizens of non-authoritarian states. This was part of the reason why UCPH suspended the admission of new PhD fellows last year with funding from the Chinese Scholarship Council. It is important to point out however, at the same time, that these regimes may also try to acquire knowledge improperly by other means, including through Danish citizens or cybercrime.

We are not succeeding in creating awareness of the importance of protecting our knowledge among staff and students

We live in a new era. But UCPH is – and will continue to insist on being – a very open and international university with talented researchers and students from THROUGHOUT the world. This requires however that we work together to develop an improved safety culture and awareness in our research collaboration. Especially within particularly vulnerable subject areas like biotechnology, artificial intelligence and quantum research.

In an international collaboration context, the initiative is basically about asking yourself: Who do I work with, what do we collaborate on, and why do they want to work with me?

We still need to do better

This April, it will be three years since an increased focus on research security was announced at UCPH. We have had many discussions at information meetings and several themed events. And we have come a long way in strengthening security, both in terms of physical security, information security, and a focus on who it is that we work with. Guidelines and checklists have been developed and are available on KUnet, and they are already used many places in connection with appointments and screening of collaborations. In you have any doubts – both in connection with appointments and in research collaboration – you should always contact your immediate manager.

We are not succeeding in creating awareness of the importance of protecting our knowledge among staff and students So the work continues.

In continuation of the PET campaign, an information and dialogue meeting will be held 15 March* at Niels Bohr Institute which will include PET participation. There will be an opportunity to discuss what the threat is in practice, and how we can handle these new risks in a positive way in our organisation.

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It will take time to change the security culture at UCPH so that it is normal to consider risks when you are a part of an international research collaboration. But we have to go that way. A few years ago, many people found it difficult to incorporate new rules and norms for the protection of personal data in their work. But this has now become a matter of course for the vast majority.

With global trends as they are in recent years, it is clear that we at UCPH need to incorporate far more rules and norms for international research collaboration. Even if we bemoan its necessity.

The authors of the opinion piece are:

Prorector David Dreyer Lassen

Associate Dean for Research Lise Arleth, Faculty of Science

Head of Department Joachim Mathiesen, Niels Bohr Institute

*14 March event will be at HCØ, Aud. 2, Universitetsparken 5, 2100 Kbh. Ø, 8.15-9.30. It is for Niels Bohr Institute employees.