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(Matthew/Adobe)

The Chinese government may have tried to steal research related to COVID-19 from the University of Texas at Austin, the FBI told the school earlier this month.


The news came from an email sent Monday to faculty, staff and post-doctoral students from the school's interim vice president and provost, Daniel Jaffe, who wrote that the investigation was sparked by the July 24 closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston.

He warned that the FBI may be reaching out to them about relations with the consulate and "efforts by the Chinese government to illegally procure research from American universities."

"We do not know whom the FBI intends to contact or what they plan to discuss, nor have we shared anyone's information or details about ongoing research with FBI agents," Jaffe said in the email. "It's not unusual for federal law enforcement officers to ask to speak with researchers if deemed necessary to support criminal or national security investigations."

Details of Jaffe's email to members of the university were first reported by the Houston Chronicle. UT is not the only university affected.

The closure of the consulate in Houston served as the latest development in the conflict between the Trump administration and China, which spans issues ranging from trade, espionage, the expansion of 5G phone service around the globe and, now, the country's role in the coronavirus pandemic.

The administration cited the need to protect intellectual property and American private information in closing the consulate—the same issues the FBI is now investigating at U.S. higher education institutions.

The day before the closure of the consulate, the Justice Department revealed indictments for two Chinese hackers accused of stealing information from "computer systems of hundreds of victim companies, governments, non-governmental organizations, and individual dissidents, clergy, and democratic and human rights activists in the United States and abroad, including Hong Kong and China."

A press release announcing the indictment said the hackers stole for their own personal gain, in some cases, and in others acted on behalf of the Chinese government. The terabytes of data ranged from tech manufacturing to pharmaceuticals to gaming software.

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