Dual Use and Cyberbiosecurity

The stakes in biosecurity are exceptionally high, as the unauthorized access, theft, or manipulation of biological materials and information for competitive advantage, strategic superiority, or malicious intent, can have profound implications for public health, economic stability, and national security.

Biosecurity targets range from agricultural innovations and pharmaceutical research to military biotechnologies and infectious disease data.

According to the FBI, terrorists have demonstrated their willingness to employ non-traditional weapons to achieve their desired outcomes. Biological agents pose challenges to both law enforcement and public health due to their unique characteristics. Since biological agents are often endemic or naturally occurring in the environment, an intentional release of a pathogen may be initially difficult to discern from a natural event, and efforts to respond to the attack and apprehend those responsible may be delayed.

Biological agents have value, can be used as a currency for information, and can be used in hybrid warfare. Foreigh intelligence agencies consider their options and opportunities, and are actively involved in bioespionage.

Which are the weakest links? Academia and research are among the most vulnerable targets.

From the Paper: "Espionage in Science and Research", from the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV) - the German domestic intelligence service.

Universities and research institutions in Germany are the target of espionage activities emanating from foreign intelligence services. Those services use various methods to get access to information and expertise. The risk of an uncontrolled outflow of expertise can be minimised by implementing and respecting adequate security standards.

Objectives and Implications of Scientific Espionage

- The primary aim of scientific espionage on behalf of foreign states is to acquire information in order to be a step ahead in terms of knowledge or to fill existing gaps in knowledge.

- State-sponsored attackers have extensive personnel and financial resources and operate systematically, skilfully and on a long-term basis.

- They meet with a scientific scene which tends to pay insufficient attention to security aspects and the risk posed by espionage.


Scientific espionage may have considerable negative implications for the institution:

- loss of orders, patents and profit

- cancellation of joint scientific projects

- loss of confidence and damage to image.

Scientific espionage is also, in the long term, a threat to Germany as an economic and scientific player.

Research areas at particular risk

Certain countries have defined sectors in which they want to achieve a leading role on the world market and/or more independence. The expertise required to that end is obtained by means of both legal and illegal methods.

Various research fields are a special focus of interest.

- Naval architecture and ocean engineering

- Energy saving and electromobility

- Information and communication technologies

- Automation and robotics

- Electricity plants

- Aerospace equipment

- New materials

- Agriculture

- Modern rail transport systems

- Biomedicine and high-performance medical equipment

Scientific Espionage: Modi Operandi and Precautions

In order to gather information, foreign intelligence services use different methods or a combination of them. Scientific institutions need a comprehensive safety concept to protect themselves, which covers the following aspects.

1. Foreign students / Guest scientists

- Foreign intelligence services make use of guest students and guest scientists to gain access to research results.

- Nationals of their country are placed under the obligation to collaborate, are pressurized or are offered baits. Cooperation may also be completely voluntary for patriotic reasons.

- Sometimes existing state affiliations are deliberately concealed from the guest institution.

Example: A guest scientist, specialist field: control engineering, engaged in research at a German university. What he concealed from the university: In his home country, he is the head of a military laboratory for rocket testing.

2. Financing / Joint projects

- Joint research projects and externally financed projects may be exploited by foreign actors to acquire relevant knowledge. Research results may be used in their home country for economic and military purposes.

- In this connection, dual-use goods and/or knowledge of proliferation concern have an important role.

Example: A German university is engaged in research, together with a foreign research institute, on a subject of materials science. The foreign university is known to be close to the military and the research results may find application for ultramodern weapon systems.

Knowledge of proliferation concern is expertise which is required to develop technologies for weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems. Scientific findings often have both civil and military applications. Being aware of this problem is a prerequisite to protecting information of proliferation concern.

3. Cyber attacks

Universities and other research institutions may become the target of state-controlled cyber attacks which are aimed at capturing sensitive research data.

Example: By means of a phishing email, students are directed to the imitated registration page of the university library. The attackers can use the captured access data to penetrate into the computer network.

Paper: "Espionage in Science and Research", from the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV) - the German domestic intelligence service.

From the Paper: "Academia as a target. Espionage and proliferation in the academic sector", from the Nachrichtendienst des Bundes (NDB) - the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service.

Raising awareness levels

International collaboration between students and scientists and their ability to move freely and exchange knowledge are of key importance in the research sector and should not be hindered. However, it is vital that universities and research institutes are aware of the threat of espionage and proliferation and take a cautious approach to the handling of critical know-how.

This includes raising awareness and training all staff (scientists, professors, employees, etc.), as well as knowing which technologies are subject to export controls and obtaining export permits from the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) where this type of technology is transferred abroad.

Switzerland and the universities and research institutes based here have a responsibility to ensure that the knowledge created or acquired in this country by students and scientists is not misused for illegal purposes. Ignoring the threats associated with this may have serious consequences for an institution if it is actually affected by espionage or proliferation activities.

Possible penalties include the loss of contracts and research funds, exclusion from international research committees, loss of reputation and a lower position in international rankings.

In addition, the outflow of confidential research results abroad could in the long term lead to a deterioration in Switzerland’s international competitiveness in the field of research.

Individuals who conduct espionage on behalf of a foreign intelligence service against Swiss interests are gambling with their future. They risk prison and jeopardise their career.

Open culture

The high technological and academic standards and the openness and welcoming culture of Swiss universities and research institutes are admired worldwide. Here, foreign researchers will find e.g. ultra-modern research laboratories in which they can conduct their scientific experiments.

However, the easy access to buildings, the policy of exchanging scientific information openly, the collaboration with technology companies and the mixture of different nationalities of teaching staff and students also make universities an attractive target for information gathering by foreign intelligence services.

These attempt to gain access to expert opinions or research data on sensitive technologies (e.g. robotics, new materials, nanotechnology) in order to fill knowledge gaps in their countries of origin. This saves the state and its industry research costs, as it is generally more cost-effective to spy on a sought-after technology or product than to invest financial and human resources into one’s own research and development.

Case Study

In 2014, a foreign physicist who was carrying out research at a Dutch University was arrested. He was suspected of having revealed the contents of confidential research to Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).

The physicist had come to the attention of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution while it was observing a Russian diplomat of the Consulate General in Bonn whom it had uncovered as an SVR officer.

Once a month, the fake diplomat and the physicist would meet in Aachen (Germany), where the diplomat would hand over money to the physicist. Each time, the physicist would drive by car from the Netherlands to Aachen for this meeting.

Following the physicist’s arrest, the University launched an internal investigation and then withdrew his accreditation. The Dutch Ministry of Justice deemed him a ‛danger to the national security of the country’, withdrew his Schengen visa and put out a pronouncement of undesirability.

Collaboration with third parties

Many research institutes engage in collaborative ventures with private companies and government agencies, which also finance relevant research projects. Through such collaborations, the scientists involved in the project gain access to expertise and sensitive information.

In order for companies and authorities to find investments in research worthwhile, they need to be the first to apply the research findings in practice on the market.

If research data and findings are leaked to third parties as a result of an espionage attack, this equates to the theft of financial resources. This jeopardises any future collaboration with the research institute.

The recognition that scientists hope to gain for pioneering research may be denied to them if someone else publishes the research findings or successfully applies them in practice first.


The Swiss Federal Intelligence Service sees applied research in science and technology, such as mechanical engineering, aviation and aerospace technology, electrical engineering, material sciences, chemistry, biology or information technology, as being particularly at risk when it comes to the illegal transfer of knowledge.

However, basic research may also be sensitive where students or scientists learn methods and techniques, which they can either pass on or later misuse for other purposes (dual-use research of concern).

Furthermore, a non-technical field may also attract the interest of a foreign government agency if it involves e.g. political issues which affect the state concerned.


Illegal intelligence (espionage) is the procurement of information and data from the political, economic, military, scientific and technological fields, which are passed on, or are intended to be passed on, to a foreign actor (state, group, company, individual, etc.), and used to the detriment of Switzerland, its population or its authorities, companies or institutions.

Case Study

A young scientist at a European university received a contact request from an employee of an Asian think tank via the professional network LinkedIn.

He expressed interest in the scientist’s work and in sharing expertise with the scientist.

The think tank invited the scientist to visit them abroad and offered to cover all his travel and accommodation expenses.

During his stay, the scientist met employees of the think tank, who in reality were state intelligence officers.

The intelligence service then attempted to recruit the scientist as a source, in order to obtain sensitive information from his field of work.

Talent Spotting

Public university events (conferences, seminars, etc.) offer intelligence officers the perfect opportunity to engage in conversation innocuously with the individuals present.

They are interested in experts and will attempt to elicit non-public information (e.g. on current research projects) from them by steering conversations subtly and skilfully. But they will also be on the lookout for individuals with particular political and ideological views as well as for young academics who might have the potential to take up a sensitive post in a government agency or a sensitive role in a high-tech company in the future.

Friendly relationships with these individuals will be cultivated over long periods, with the aim of gaining access to classified information should they be appointed to such posts or roles.

Approaching exchange students

• While establishing a relationship with an exchange student, a foreign intelligence service officer will not admit to being a member of an intelligence service, but will pose e.g. as a student or as a member of a think tank, research or language institute or consultancy firm.

They will contact the student under an innocuous-seeming pretext, such as arranging an interesting job or internship, paid clerical work or a language exchange. The contact will be made either in person or electronically.

Online social networks such as LinkedIn or Facebook, in particular, enable foreign intelligence services to gather information about a targeted individual and to establish initial contact with that person with a view to possible recruitment.

• A foreign intelligence service will ask a student to complete certain tasks or to procure certain information in exchange for payment. This will not necessarily involve sensitive information. The aim is to test the suitability of the person as a potential informant.

• A foreign intelligence service will instruct a professor to recruit foreign students.

• The host country will accuse a student of having committed alleged legal offences or misdemeanours in order to put pressure on this individual and force them into collaborating with the intelligence service.

• Under the pretext of conducting a general survey on a student’s stay in and impressions of the host country (e.g. by means of a questionnaire), the foreign intelligence service will attempt to draw up a profile of a student and to obtain information about their interests, circle of acquaintances or weaknesses.

Paper: "Academia as a target. Espionage and proliferation in the academic sector", from the Nachrichtendienst des Bundes (NDB) - the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service.