Students Abroad Warned of Foreign Spy Threat

Three years ago, Glenn Duffie Shriver, a Michigan resident and former college student who had studied in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), was sentenced to federal prison in the United States for attempting to provide national defense information to PRC intelligence officers.

According to the Institute of International Education, more than 280,000 American students studied abroad last year. These experiences provide students with tremendous cultural opportunities and can equip them with specialized language, technical, and leadership skills that make them very marketable to U.S. private industry and government employers.

But this same marketability makes these students tempting and vulnerable targets for recruitment by foreign intelligence officers whose long-term goal is to gain access to sensitive or classified U.S. information. Glenn Shriver — prodded by foreign intelligence officers into eventually applying for U.S. government jobs — cited his naivety as a key factor in his actions.

Law enforcement has ramped up efforts to educate American university students preparing to study abroad about the dangers of knowingly or unknowingly getting caught up in espionage activities.

How do foreign intelligence officers routinely interact with students?

  • Foreign intelligence officers don’t normally say they work for intelligence services when developing relationships with students — they claim other lines of work.
  • Intelligence officers develop initial relationships with students under seemingly innocuous pretexts such as job or internship opportunities, paid paper-writing engagements, language exchanges, and cultural immersion programs.
  • As relationships are developed, the student might be asked to perform a task and provide information — not necessarily sensitive or classified — in exchange for payment or other rewards, but these demands grow over time.
  • Intelligence officers might suggest that students — upon completion of their schooling — apply for U.S. government jobs (particularly for national security-related agencies).

What can students to protect themselves while studying abroad?

  • Be skeptical of “money-for-nothing” offers and other opportunities that seem too good to be true, and be cautious of being offered free favors, especially those involving government processes such as obtaining visas, residence permits, and work papers.
  • Minimize personal information you reveal about yourself, especially through social media.
  • Minimize your contact with people who have questionable government affiliations or who you suspect might be engaged in criminal activity.
  • Properly report any money or compensation you received while abroad on tax forms and other financial disclosure documents to ensure compliance with U.S. laws.

Above all, keep your awareness level up at all times. “A keen awareness,” said Glenn Duffie Shriver in a warning to other students, “is the most powerful weapon [against being recruited].”

And when you return to the U.S., report any suspicious activity to the FBI. You can also contact your local U.S. embassy or consulate while abroad.

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