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Foreign Workers Pose Technology Security Threat

March 11, 2011
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
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Dual-use U.S. technology may be improving other nations’ militaries as a result of efforts by foreign technology workers in the United States, according to a U.S. government report. U.S. government agencies should tighten their processes and monitoring of visas and foreign workers’ access to controlled technologies, the report recommends.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, “Improvements Needed to Prevent Unauthorized Technology Releases to Foreign Nationals in the United States,” (www.gao.gov/new.items/d11354.pdf) states that foreign nationals from “countries of concern” have gained unauthorized access to U.S. controlled technologies over the past several years. Many of these technologies are dual-use technologies that are applied overseas to military purposes. During the fiscal years 2004 through 2009, the U.S. Commerce Department fined 14 U.S. companies roughly $2.3 million for unauthorized technology transfers to foreign nationals from 25 countries.

Citing intelligence reports and law enforcement sources, the report notes that only a small group of countries is responsible for most of the efforts to obtain U.S. controlled technologies for military uses. However, those nations use some of their foreign nationals as part of organized technology collection programs while they work, study or visit in the United States. These nations tend to employ nontraditional means of intelligence collection against the United States, so the U.S. government often has little knowledge of when individuals in the country for legitimate business purposes “might have illegitimate objectives,” the report allows.

The most highly targeted technologies include aeronautics; computers and information systems; electronics; lasers and optics; sensors and marine technology; unmanned aerial vehicles; and biotechnology. In some cases, emerging military or commercial technologies have not yet been added to the Commerce Control List because their sensitivity is hard to identify in their early phases. As a result, these technologies often are more vulnerable to loss or compromise. And, U.S. employers frequently are experiencing shortages of qualified workers in engineering and scientific fields; so they turn to foreign experts, the report observes.

Many of these problems were identified in a 2002 GAO report, the office relates. Yet, its earlier conclusions remain relevant today. About 1 million foreign nationals from countries of concern have been approved to work in high-technology jobs in the United States, and a much smaller number have received deemed export licenses to work in related technologies.

In its new report, the GAO recommends that the secretary of commerce take two specific actions. The first would be to work with the U.S. attorney general and the secretary of homeland security to assess the extent to which foreign nationals from countries of concern who received specialty occupation visas should have been covered by deemed export license applications.

This assessment might entail reviewing a sample of H-1B specialty visas in technologies such as computers, electronics or biotechnology. This action would help identify vulnerabilities in the deemed export control system, and it would aid in implementing new procedures while educating companies and universities about export requirements.

The second recommendation is for the Commerce Department to report to Congress the steps it is taking to implement past and current recommendations, particularly with regard to the Export Control Reform Initiative. This recommendation involves efforts such as improving outreach; implementing a monitoring program for export license security compliance; screening foreign nationals who change their immigration status in the United States for deemed export requirements; and improving coordination among law enforcement agencies.