Editorial: Dangers of padlocks

The balance between freedom of academic exchange and protecting sensitive material from foreign spies can be a delicate one, especially in a congenial and heterogeneous environment as a university campus. While the U.S. Department of Defense’s proposal to limit foreign-born students and technicians to work with technologies related to national security is well-intentioned, it is ultimately an ill-conceived one for its disregard for the practical realities as well as the fundamental point of having a university – to bring the best and the brightest together to achieve greatness.

The proposed rule change would apply to the use of any material or equipment with military applications – which are inherently prohibited from being exported to certain states without a license.

While the current laws allow foreign citizens to gain access to such technologies or data after obtaining a special license, many are allowed to have access to these sensitive items if their research is elemental in nature and is intended to be published for general consumption for the sake of advancing scientific knowledge.

The plan comes after a stern warning from Johnnie E. Frazier, inspector general of the U.S. Commerce Department, who in 2004 warned that sensitive technologies and data being used within American soil were vulnerable to espionage due to faulty regulations. A report issued by the department recommended various measures, including the examination of researchers’ place of birth, not their citizenship, in determining whether a license needed to be obtained to gain access to information or tools that could potentially compromise national security if leaked to certain nations.

There is certainly weight to the concerns voiced from the government officials. It would obviously be detrimental to the Americans should, for example, certain technologies relating to the production of nuclear warheads or long-range missiles be siphoned away to Iran or North Korea. The federal government has the responsibility to its people, as well as other nations, to make sure that potentially dangerous technologies, chemicals, tools, weapons or information stay out of the hands of the reckless and the deviant – regardless of whether they are tyrant regimes or terrorists.

But the proposed regulations place a tremendous burden on research institutions throughout the U.S., including this university. Should regulations similar to those discussed and proposed by the Defense Department and the Commerce Department become law, much money, time and effort would have to be spent combing through documents upon documents of thousands upon thousands of foreign researchers.

It’s easy to see how much of a disruption would be caused to many research projects throughout the country, considering the fact that about 565,000 foreign students were enrolled in American colleges and universities last year. Even a few days’ delay could significantly alter, or even destroy, months or even years of copious work.

What is also hard to understand is why the officials are so convinced that only those born in nations like China, whose government is believed to be actively seeking ways to acquire American technologies that could be employed to their military use, would be liable to sneak information out of the country. There’s no reason to think that an American-born citizen is less likely to sell vital blueprints or vials for a suitcase stuffed with c-notes. It would also be naive to think that our allies would not be looking to send spies.

But the biggest problem with such restriction is the damage it can cause to academic progress and the positive effects of interaction among the intellectuals of different states. The reason why the foreign researchers are working in our labs is because they possess brilliant minds, a fresh perspective and the willingness to push for more knowledge. And the process of professional collaboration in a peaceful setting will only help create familiarity and greater understanding among people of different backgrounds, cultures and nationalities. To crudely stifle much of these golden opportunities for intellectual, social and political progress would be counterproductive.

The federal government is responsible for keeping the nation safe from harm, and it should exercise all of the necessary powers granted to it by the Constitution in order to do so. But it must also consider the consequences of its actions before acting, instead of blindly swiping at the first signs of trouble or the first cry of wolf.