FBI Fights Intellectual Property Theft from University Offices

FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing September 17.

FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies before a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing September 17. John McDonnell/The Washington Post, Pool via AP

Director Christopher Wray noted the importance of attribution in the bureau’s strategy amid growing difficulty investigating cyber crime.

The academic sector is becoming more cooperative in efforts to combat intellectual property theft from China with some universities shifting attitudes toward the FBI’s presence on campus, Director Christopher Wray said while testifying about worldwide threats to the homeland.

“Frankly, this is one of the bright spots over the last couple of years,” Wray said before the House Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee Thursday. “I’m struck by the number of … universities that, a few years ago wouldn’t have wanted an FBI office anywhere near campus, [are] some that now have office space set aside for our people.”

Wray said investigations related to China now represent the vast majority of the bureau’s counterintelligence portfolio.

On Wednesday, during an annual event hosted by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Wray announced what he said was a new strategy to stem intellectual property theft and all manner of cyber crime by imposing risks and consequences.

Wray pointed to indictments made by the Justice Department based on collaboration between the FBI and the National Security Agency that exposed malware associated with Russian intelligence and the importance of an interagency group called the national cyber investigative joint task force, which was formed in 2008

“I think the commission was on the right track on that, including in particular, really highlighting and encouraging the government to double down on our national cyber investigative joint task force that brings a whole of government approach to the importance of attribution, which is so key,” Wray said in response to questions from Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., regarding recommendations from the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, on which they both serve.

Wray said the combined use of cryptocurrencies, end-to-end encryption, and the fact that artificial intelligence capabilities deters informants from coming forward is making that attribution increasingly difficult.

“Each time we sort of solve one kind of cryptocurrency, another one comes on the market,” he said regarding the ability to follow the money, for example, although he noted the bureau has developed significant expertise in that particular area.

It’s crucial for academia and the private sector to share information and cooperate with federal agencies, Wray said. Langevin has promoted legislation to formalize private-sector engagement at CISA.  

On the China front, Wray said “the scope and scale of this threat is really breathtaking” and noted that, in the case of academia, it’s often taxpayers that are directly paying the price.

“The Chinese view themselves as in an international talent war,” he said. “When they can’t innovate and research themselves, they send people over here, in some cases legitimately, but in many cases not, who engage in intellectual property theft of American research, bringing it back to China to advance China’s national security goals, which has the perverse effect–since a lot of this research is taxpayer funded—of having Americans fund their advancement at our expense.”