Australia is to draw up a list of critical and emerging technologies that are subject to restrictions on foreign research collaboration, a parliament intelligence committee heard yesterday.
Security agencies already screen international collaboration on military or dual-use technologies from universities, but in a review led by the prime minister’s office and the Australian Department of Home Affairs, other emerging technologies that present an economic risk would be identified.
It was a departure from past practice that economic competition was being considered in a national interest assessment, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Director-General Mike Burgess said.
“Global circumstances are driving us in that direction, but that does not mean to say that we want to become totally protectionist as a nation,” he told the parliament’s intelligence and security committee.
The committee is holding an inquiry into national security risks to universities, and many submissions have focused on China, from where a large number of students come.
Hosting international students was important for Australia’s economy and for diversity of thought at universities, Burgess said.
ASIO investigated covert attempts by foreign states to obtain Australian intellectual property and the security agency had 60 interactions with universities last year, he said.
China had been open about its ambition in technology research and its Thousand Talents Program, to recruit people familiar with foreign technology and intellectual property, was “in of itself not concerning,” Burgess said.
“It is a natural extension of China’s strategic plan to become a world leader in technology, and secure their economic and military advantage,” he said.
In the US, several researchers at universities and NASA have been charged by the US Department of Justice with lying about their involvement in the Thousand Talents Program.
The US adopted a law to identify and limit the sharing of critical and emerging technologies with China in 2018.
Burgess did not identify China, but said that one foreign state had been highly active in its interference attempts in Australia, including cyberintrusions.
He said he was in regular discussion with Australia’s “Five Eyes” intelligence counterparts — Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US — as well as other allies, who shared the same concerns on foreign interference.
In a written submission, ASIO described researchers and their families being threatened by actors seeking to have sensitive research provided to a foreign state.
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