For several years, Australia's security agencies have warned the country's universities about the potential for foreign interference. Behind closed doors, they even name their chief culprit: Beijing. Why would the Chinese have an interest in infiltrating Australian universities, and what could these acts of espionage mean for the integrity of the educational system and national security in general? ABC News' Four Corners series investigates in Red Flags.
It began nearly two decades ago with a scheme that was only recently uncovered. It was found that hackers had been preying upon students and staff by taking advantage of security loopholes in the academic networks. The operation was clearly well organized and funded. But this was no simple breach involving credit card accounts or identity theft. Australian National University has graduated thousands of students who have gone on to work in the national security sector. What if these hackers collected compromising information on some of these students, and plan to use the materials for blackmail purposes? It is suspected that the Chinese Communist Party could very well be behind these cyber attacks.
The story doesn't end there. Australian universities receive significant sums of money from China both through tuition fees and collaborative research projects. Groups like the Chinese Students and Scholars Association have made it their mission to enlist the services of students to expand their communist influence across campuses. Student protests have erupted at multiple universities, and are often reduced to volatile clashes between pro and anti-Beijing demonstrators.
These elements create the impression of conflicts of interest. How far can their sphere of influence expand before the universities relinquish their autonomy?
The film features interviews with a variety of security experts, university representatives, and members of the student body. Some of these students feel unfairly targeted by the media, who they believe are quick to accuse students of carrying out spy work on behalf of the Chinese communist regime.
Red Flags expertly outlines a complicated system of high espionage. The film also serves a stark warning to university administrators and government regulators who have been lax in their response to these potential threats.