PARIS - Pirates, spies, moles, thieves: those who want to steal the scientific treasures of French research laboratories had better be careful.
With a new measure to protect the "nation’s scientific and technical potential," in the next few months every organization, university and engineering school will be receiving instructions on how to protect themselves. Indeed, spying on national or foreign competitors is not limited to industrial espionage: fundamental and applied research are also targeted.
"This is not imaginary. You would have to be naively optimistic not to know that there research is a target of international information-gathering strategies," says Jean Marimbert, secretary general and security chief of the French education and research ministry.
No doubt there are few espionage scandals as bad as that of “Farewell,” the code name of a French double agent who worked for the KGB and its French counterpart of the time, the DST, during the 1970s and 1980s; nor as serious as the case of Rolf Dobbertin, a French researcher accused of spying for East Germany in 1979. He was finally acquitted in 1991.
But the threat exists. Certainly, preventing the proliferation of nuclear, chemical or bacteriological weapons is still a priority, but with globalization and economic competition, attention is also turning toward laboratories researching for patents, start-ups, and other innovative products. There have been leaks, although the people we interviewed did not want to discuss them. "A research scientist is not going to brag that someone stole his computer or his idea. A laboratory will not be proud of having been burglarized," we were told. But several enlightening stories are already making the rounds.
Ties dipped in laboratory beakers
The most popular story is the one about the foreign delegation visiting a chemistry lab, whose delegates carelessly let their ties hang into the beakers. A more serious example is the case of a foreign scientist in a French laboratory who filed for patents in his home country without mentioning the institution he was affiliated with. Another case is that of a foreign student caught twice stealing files on his director's computers, and allowed to leave without any trouble, except for being sanctioned by the university.
One chemist told us that his foreign competitors had been able to make up time by seizing data he had naively posted in a grant proposal for funding for his laboratory. One French computer executive caught a foreign delegation in the act of lending its hosts a thumb drive loaded with spy software.
In fact, the form of espionage varies widely. Computer attacks, a classic, remain quite common. The French Commissariat for atomic and alternative energies (CEA) estimates that 97 % of requests for access to its servers are rejected. Most of these are from abroad. Other threats include computer and telephone thefts, a quarter of which are "targeted," or linked to their content rather than to the computer or telephone itself, according to those we interviewed. In the Thalys trans-Europe express train, 400 computers are stolen each year. At the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), more than 50 computers were stolen in 2008.
Thefts and conflicts relating to intellectual property are also an important category, which often take much longer for a resolution. The CEA took almost ten years to win a lawsuit against Samsung over flat screen technology. Less well known are attacks on image or reputation through hijacking or takeovers of websites.
Another category of threat has created a great deal of anxiety in people's imaginations: “financial infringement.” The expression means equity participation or purchases by foreign investors, which can be a way of getting access to secret or patented information. The suspicion is difficult to confirm. It is also true that not all valuable information needs to be stolen. It could be public already; the trick is knowing how to find and use it.
Access to restricted zones
France, therefore, is getting ready to counter the threat. "The new measure is less about the form than about legal issues," explains Jean Marimbert. Since 1993, security has been under the ministry's "instruction," a measure that is less effective than the law that is now in place. Intrusion into "ZRR” restricted zones can now be punished according to the penal code. Until now, all that could be done was to ask an intruder to leave an area with controlled access.
The number of these zones, obviously, is confidential. There could be "between 100 and 1000" among the 2200 laboratories whose activities are listed in the July decree; these include mathematics and mathematical interactions, astronomy, and theoretical physics. As before, requests for internships, theses, and post-doctoral research regarding these zones will be examined by the 120 officials in charge of defense and security for French universities, organizations and engineering schools, whose main activity is to filter such requests. The CEA for instance deals with tens of thousands a year, and refuses less than 1 % requests.
Another innovation is that the decree applies to all nationalities. Earlier, European Union citizens were not affected. Moreover, the term "visit" will apply not only to work encounters, but to any "temporary" presence, which increases the number of people being monitored.
"The aim is not to keep our scientists from working. We are protecting ourselves so that thefts do not occur," explains Edwige Bonnevie, director of risk prevention at the CEA.
The task is more difficult in the research world than in the economic sphere. "A scientist needs to interact with the outside world. He listens, he talks. He shows in order to receive. But transparency does not mean naïveté," says Jacques Lewiner, president of the ESPCI Georges Charpak fund, which promotes research.
In spite of all efforts, our sources say, the number of attacks on French science is rising. The 2010 audit that led to the current reform showed a "disquieting level." A report by Claude Rochet for the Ministry of the Economy in July 2011 reported that "economic security was not a priority" in the competitive poles, or laboratories grouped by themes, of enterprises of any size. In response, the inter-ministry delegation for economic intelligence published a guide in March for French laboratories. Before the end of the year, it plans to offer software for laboratories to evaluate their own level of protection. The defense and security officials have one more task, a demanding one: raising awareness of the threat.
Some basic security principles :
- Put property marks on personal documents.
- Keep laboratory logs up to date.
- Make back-up copies.
- Use only computer hardware and software that is of known origin, trusted and tested.
- Encrypt data when necessary.
- Make interns and visitors sign confidentiality agreements before they enter a laboratory.
- When going abroad, take only indispensable documents. Take a computer only if absolutely necessary.
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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