Todd Ackerman, writing for the Houston Chronicle, notes
In an unprecedented gathering, FBI officials warned top leaders of Texas academic and medical institutions Wednesday about security threats from foreign adversaries, the first step in a new initiative the bureau plans to replicate around the country.
The gathering, attended by more than 100 academic officials from the Texas Medical Center and around the state, focused on how the institutions can better partner with the FBI to prevent the theft of intellectual property and research, often through internal threats.
“We want to establish, cultivate, and enhance public-private relationships to mitigate attempts by foreign adversaries to steal from our institutions for their benefit,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Perrye K. Turner. “It is incumbent on us, given the importance of medical and academic institutions in Houston, to create platforms to share information to mitigate the risks and prevent theft.”
Deron Ogletree, FBI assistant special assistant in charge said, “inside threats,” people hard to identify because they’ve gained the institution’s trust, pose the No. 1 risk to academic and medical institutions. He said FBI officials outlined tripwires institutions can create to alert them to cyber espionage.
Donald Lichay, FBI supervisory special agent, said the bureau “really wanted the institutions to hear some of the information we’ve collected so they believe the threat’s real.” He noted that the academic community prides itself so much on the free and open discourse of ideas that they may find it hard to believe that people working with them may not have the best of intentions toward the institution and the country.
FBI officials provided the leaders with “classified information about direct threats, both in Houston and nationally,” he said.
The meeting reflects the bureau’s increasing concern, made in public comments and before congressional committees, about cybersecurity threats posed by adversaries such as China, Russia and Iran. Following a 2017 report that found intellectual-property theft by China costs the U.S. as much as $600 billion annually, FBI Director Christopher Wray this June called China “the broadest, most significant” threat to the United States and said its espionage is active in all 50 states.
The officials said the initiative is not a political or administrative change, but a new bureau and intelligence community mindset that’s been building the past three or four years.
Turner, Ogletree and Lichay met with the Chronicle after the three-hour-long briefing. They mentioned no specific countries.
Lichay said the threat to academic and medical institutions is “growing” and “evolving” and that partnerships are needed to stay in front of it. Turner said the FBI doesn’t have the resources to tackle the problem all by itself.
It makes sense Houston would be the initiative’s starting location because the city is an “epicenter of world-class and renowned academic and research institutions,” Lichay said, adding that he hopes Houston leads the charge informing the academic community about the threat.
William McKeon, president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center, said the information presented Wednesday was something of a replay for him because he’s met with the FBI several times in the past year. But he said it was likely “a real eye-opening experience” for many of those in attendance.
“The TMC is definitely vulnerable, given the amount of research and materials and physicians present,” said McKeon. “There’s a lot at stake here and cyberattacks almost daily. For many of these countries, the fastest way to improve their economies is to steal technology, not develop it themselves.”
The Houston-area leaders represented about 20 institutions, including many in the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems, the University of Houston, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Baylor College of Medicine and Houston Methodist Hospital.
McKeon said he’d never seen such a meeting of the FBI and the state’s academic and medical firepower. FBI officials added that they’d never convened such a large gathering.
A number of the Houston leaders could not be reached for comment after the meeting. Three, however, were quoted in support of the initiative in an FBI news release issued later Wednesday, including Dr. Peter Pisters, president of MD Anderson. Pisters said the inaugural briefing “highlights the challenges and threats our society faces today.”
Dr. Mauro Ferrari, president of Methodist’s Research Institute, said in the statement that “when law enforcement agencies like the FBI ask for our help to protect our research environment and our nation, we heed that call.”
Lichay emphasized that the FBI doesn’t want to “insert ourselves into private institutions — we want them to know we’re here to help, to share information, including concerns they may be being targeted.”
He said that in the past — more in other cities than in Houston — there has often been friction between academic institutions and the bureau, “a perception the FBI is maybe targeting in a specific way as opposed to simply enforcing the law.”
Lichay and Turner said the goal is new relationships in which both parties share information with each other.
“Today, we wanted to open our arms and bring them in the family and hope they will do the same with us,” said Lichay. “We want to spread a wide net.”
The meeting also was attended by FBI officials from other parts of Texas and the region, who intend to bring points made in the meeting to their cities and states.