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Swedish Security Service finds increased number of threats to Sweden’s higher education institutions

Foreign powers' intelligence activities directed towards Swedish higher education institutions have grown in number in recent years. Russia, China and Iran are the biggest threats according to Säpo, the Swedish Security Service.

Linus Hellerstedt
Other countries' intelligence activities conducted against Swedish colleges and universities have increased. Security protection work should therefore be taken more seriously, Säpo believes.

Occasionally the Chinese intelligence service uses Chinese citizens at Swedish universities and colleges to obtain information, writes Säpo in the 2021 issue of its Security Service Yearbook. This is mostly information about technology that China may have military uses for.

Russia identified as a threat
Russia is also named as a nation that spies on Sweden in various ways. For example, Russia engages in espionage in the field of research and development, industry and cyber espionage.

“Russia also conducts intelligence activities against people in Sweden with a Russian background who may either have access to interesting information or who are classified by the Russian authorities as a threat to their own regime,” writes Säpo.

After the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the situation has deteriorated further, according to Nellie Grenius, head of security at Stockholm University and convener of the higher education institutions’ security protection network, which is organised within the framework of SUHF, the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions.

Nellie Grenius.

“In its statements, the Security Service has explained that they see that there are countries that are acting increasingly aggressively and trying to gain advantages in order to strengthen their positions, which impacts Sweden’s security,” Grenius tells Universitetsläraren.

“I believe that we need to take the responsible authorities’ assessment seriously when they conclude that the deteriorating situation will affect Sweden’s national security for several years to come.”

Global power struggle
Within the higher education institutions’ network for security protection, there is a working group that supports higher education institutions to start working with security protection. They are working to introduce an export control programme to identify and ensure that products with multiple uses do not fall into the wrong hands, Grenius tells us.

According to Säpo, one of the reasons that Sweden is an attractive country for countries like China and Russia to spy on is because the country is a leader in cutting-edge technology and research. Sweden finds itself in the middle of a global power struggle, they say.

“It is becoming increasingly common for Sweden to be used as an arena for foreign powers in order to be able to attack other countries and other countries’ interests. This applies both to the use of technical platforms and the use by foreign powers of individuals who are in Sweden,” writes Säpo.

Nations that want to arm themselves with weapons of mass destruction are also drawn to Sweden, as our military and civilian industries are technologically advanced. It has also become more common for countries with non-democratic governments to simply shift conflicts here, according to Säpo’s assessment.

Attractive open climate for research
Additionally, Sweden’s open research climate is attractive, and the number and scope of intelligence activities conducted against Swedish colleges and universities have increased. Therefore, their assessment is that security protection should be taken more seriously.

Nellie Grenius agrees with Säpo. “However, I wouldn’t say that higher education institutions are particularly vulnerable or particularly at risk of being targeted,” she says.  “That danger exists in all companies and organisations in Sweden that are involved in some type of security-sensitive activity.”

More prevalent in recent years
Per Nordén is head of security at Lund University. He also explains that possible security threats from other countries have become more prevalent in recent years. At the same time, interest in security matters has increased, both in the media and among the general public.

“You could say there has been an incredible growth in recent years, but in general the interest and the supply of resources with regard to these types of security issue have also increased.”

He also believes that the outbreak of war in Ukraine has changed the situation further. “Just as I know that several of my colleagues at other universities have done, we have conducted a review and made changes in order to be better prepared and protected, so it has certainly had an impact. But I can’t say that we have had incidents that could be traced to what is happening in Ukraine at the moment.”

What have you done?
“This is sensitive information, but I can say that we have used various methods to encourage our departments to put their houses in order and start thinking even more about what activities are worthy of protection,” says Nordén

He describes how they collaborate with both Säpo and other higher education institutions on security matters, and that collaboration has intensified recently. “We have increased our preparedness and focus regarding these matters, and we enjoy a very strong collaboration. Things can always be improved, and it can be difficult to protect yourself if someone really wants to get at equipment or information, but we are well on track.”

Linus Hellerstedt

Universitetsläraren conforms strictly to journalistic principles and follows the media industry’s rules on publication and professional ethics. The magazine is free and independent of its owner, SULF – the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers.
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