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»Does your work end up in Tehran?« Researchers say new Danish secret service campaign is racist

Espionage — A number of researchers from the Niels Bohr Institute have signed a petition against a new, ironically phrased, campaign by the Danish intelligence agency PET. They deem the PET campaign to be racist, and to cast unnecessary suspicions on non-Danes. The intelligence agency responds that the threat to Danish research is »significant«.

»We, researchers and students from Niels Bohr Institute, feel the need to express our opinion about this poster that was recently put up at the bus stop in front of our place of work.«

This is how 182 researchers begin an open petition to the Danish Security and Intelligence Service PET which at the end of January 2024 launched a campaign against espionage at Danish universities. Their message was conveyed via a series of subtly phrased warnings, like for example, »avoid becoming staffer of the year for Russian intelligence,« as quoted by the media Ingeniøren.

Most recently, the campaign was at a bus stop in front of the Niels Bohr Institute on Blegdamsvej in Copenhagen. It states:

»You get off at the Niels Bohr Institute. But does your work end up in Tehran?«

This is the message that has provoked 182 researchers who have penned an open petition on the Ingeniøren media site here. They call the campaign »explicitly racist,« arguing that campaigns like this »target non-white immigrants and explicitly single them out as people you shouldn’t have as colleagues and even as friends.«

Our research ends up in all sorts of places throughout the world of course – that’s the intention

Ilia Chernobrovkin, PhD student, Niels Bohr Institute

Ilia Chernobrovkin is a PhD student from Russia at the Niels Bohr Institute and has helped formulate the letter. The PET campaign sends out a whole series of wrong signals, according to him.

»We find the campaign misleading. And at the same time it problematizes specific nationalities. It has therefore been important for us to show that the Niels Bohr Institute’s staff and students do not support the campaign,« he says and continues:

»Of course our research ends up in all over the the world – that’s the intention. It is completely unnecessary for this campaign to single out specific places where our research must not end up. In this case, they highlight Iran, but it could just as well have been Russia, China or a third country. It’s offensive, and it casts suspicion on all of us who come from non-European countries.«

Ilia Chernobrovkin emphasises that the working environment at Niels Bohr Institute is distinctly international, as people from many different nationalities work closely together on a daily basis.

»I myself am from Russia, and I immediately added my name to the petition. There has been a fear of Russian espionage, and it is not nice to be suspected. I don’t find myself being suspected at work, but campaigns like this can contribute to it,« he says.

Necessary campaign

Among the many signatories are a number of prominent names. They include Professor Anja C. Andersen, Professor Kim Sneppen and PhD student Albert Sneppen. Among the signatories are Iranian PhD student Peyman Malek Zadeh.

»At first I didn’t understand the campaign at all. I just thought: ‘Well, of course, our research ends up all over the world, because that’s how research works’,« says Peyman Malek Zadeh.

Through conversations with colleagues, however, Peyman Malek Zadeh quickly realized that the campaign was not meant literally, but rather as a warning to researchers to be careful that they were not subjected to espionage.

»I think that security information should be conveyed directly, not wrapped up in irony. It’s weird, and imprecise about what the campaign actually wants to communicate, apart from creating distrust and making people paranoid,« he says.

Peyman Malek Zadeh also describes the working environment at the Niels Bohr Institute as »international and friendly.« It is therefore not nice when it is insinuated that you should be aware of espionage among your colleagues at the department, according to the Iranian PhD student.

It’s weird, and imprecise about what the campaign actually wants to communicate, apart from creating distrust and making people paranoid

Peyman Malek Zadeh, PhD student, Niels Bohr Institute

The University Post has contacted PET, and they responded with a written statement:

»The threat to Danish research and innovation is significant. And we see a sustained interest in Danish knowledge, technology and knowhow from states like Russia, China and Iran. The aim of PET’s latest campaign is to raise the awareness about this particular threat and the dilemmas that researchers experience qua their key role in preventing the threat.«

PET also says that, through close dialogue with the universities, they have identified a need to focus efforts on academic staff.

»If Denmark is to exploit the full potential of our knowledge and innovation, research institutions need to consider security to a much greater extent – and preferably from the very beginning,« PET writes and continues.

»To support this at the universities, PET has also strengthened efforts its towards university management by providing advice, information about the threat, and by assistance in building up security organizations.«

If you ask Ilia Chernobrovkin however, it is not nice to be made a suspect on the basis of your nationality.

»It is damaging to have to start looking at a colleague from non-European or non-Western countries as unfriendly or as someone who has bad intentions,« says Chernobrovkin.