McGill University plans to maintain its research partnerships with Huawei Technologies Co., a Chinese telecommunications corporation recently barred from Canadian fifth-generation (5G) mobile networks by the federal government.
The Canadian government announced the ban on May 19, after years of pressure from federal opposition parties over privacy concerns and the company’s close ties to the Chinese government. The Canadian military and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) have warned against Huawei’s participation in 5G for years, and CSIS believes that research partnerships also pose a threat. Academics interviewed by The McGill Tribune express similar concerns.
McGill and other Canadian universities, such as the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia, partner with Huawei for research and development projects. In an email to the Tribune, McGill media relations officer Frédérique Mazerolle wrote that McGill has a limited number of research partnerships with Huawei Canada in broadband networks and optical and wireless technologies.
According to a list compiled by Jim Hinton, an intellectual property (IP) lawyer and assistant professor at Western University, McGill professors have worked as inventors on 14 patents owned by Huawei since 2016—more than at any other Canadian university.
In an interview with the Tribune, Hinton warned that researchers at McGill may be contributing to the development of technologies, such as Huawei’s 5G technology, that benefit the Chinese government economically and strategically. However, these innovations cannot be implemented in Canada due to the federal government’s cybersecurity concerns.
“If this company can’t be trusted in our 5G networks, how can there be such a distinction made when it comes to even more cutting edge research?” Hinton wondered.
Chinese law requires companies to work with security and intelligence agencies upon request. Although Huawei denies any collaboration with the Chinese Communist Party, accusations of cyber-espionage have mounted—Australian intelligence services, for example, found a hack in Huawei technologies that transmitted data to China and then self-deleted. Leaked company reports also implicate Huawei in government surveillance of China’s population, including human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims characterized by Canada’s House of Commons as genocide.
Meanwhile, the McGill administration says that these partnerships with Huawei are integral to the university’s ability to conduct research.
“Research is a global endeavour and it is crucial that Canadian universities partner with others at home and abroad, public and private, to ensure Canada retains its place as a global research leader,” Mazerolle wrote. “Canada’s leading universities partner with companies from around the globe to conduct research that benefits Canada and the world.”
Some, like Hinton and Ben Fung, professor of cybersecurity at McGill’s School of Information Studies, question who really benefits from these partnerships. In interviews with the Tribune, both Hinton and Fung argued that the university is at a disadvantage in the patent process, and that the partner company often takes ownership of the technology instead of the university or researcher.
“After one or two years, the professor will rely on that external company’s funding, and expect that the company will continue funding the research,” Fung said. “That’s the moment the company can demand something that may not be reasonable [….] They may ask you to invent something that completely belongs to the company.”
Huawei owns exclusive IP rights to 13 of the 14 patented inventions identified by Hinton. Despite being privately owned, most of these projects were funded by the public sector and rely heavily on university equipment and infrastructure.
New federal guidelines make researchers complete a security risk assessment before receiving grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). According to Mazerolle, many of McGill’s partnerships with Huawei involve NSERC funding. However, Fung expects companies to continue partnering with professors and benefitting from university resources even if they can’t receive grants through NSERC. As an alternative, Fung believes the government should publish a registry of foreign-state-affiliated organizations to ensure that professors are fully informed about the companies they work with.
“There should be education to professors on the consequence[s] of collaborating with foreign state companies—that they may use the research for military use, and that this is not good for Canada,” Fung said. “It’s also not good for the reputation of the professor.”
Hinton advocates for stricter intervention in university partnerships, similar to what is required of American universities. In the U.S., universities must prove that they are not involved in risky partnerships with foreign-state-sponsored companies in order to secure Defense Department funding.
“Somebody’s got to be the leader on this,” Hinton said. “The federal government, the provincial government, and the institutions themselves have to take responsibility.”