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MI5 warns Oxford University of security threat

In a recent briefing, MI5 has warned that foreign states are targeting UK universities, including Oxford University, which jeopardises national security. The briefing comes after a government review of security threats found in higher education. 

The chief executive of the National Cyber Security Center, Felicity Oswald, and MI5 General Director Ken McCallum announced that MI5 will consult universities on measures to secure sensitive information.

Though the announcement did not name any countries of interest, it follows from last year’s warning of China’s possible influence in university research programs.

Following the announcement, new measures were introduced including increasing the transparency of research funding, increasing stringency of university personnel given clearance, and offering government funding for universities to improve internal security capabilities. Researchers and university staff coming to the UK from nations like China must also undergo lengthy security-clearing when applying for a university-related visa, particularly those working in STEM fields.

This is because STEM research fields are particularly vulnerable to espionage, MI5 warns. MI5 fears new research could be fielded by states in order to bolster their own economic and military aims. Intellectual property on new technology, chemicals, and medicine are of special concern. MI5 worries the UK’s vanguard research may be leaked via compromised university staff, opaque partnerships, and cyber-attacks on universities. 

Universities, including Oxford and the Russell Group, have a longstanding partnership with MI5 mitigating national security risks that come from leaked breakthroughs in the UK. The chief executive of Universities UK, Tim Bradwaw, has said: “Russell Group universities take their national security responsibilities incredibly seriously and already work closely with government and the intelligence community to help protect UK breakthroughs in fields like AI, which are important to our national interest.” 

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