Are foreign spies looking to target Georgia Tech?

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ATLANTA — A Channel 2 Action News investigation shows the FBI’s interest in protecting Georgia Tech from foreign espionage.

You’ve seen the headlines: A top professor at Harvard was indicted for lying about receiving money from China. Federal prosecutors in Atlanta indicted four Chinese military officers for the massive data breach at Equifax.

[READ MORE: DOJ: Chinese hackers responsible for 2017 Atlanta-based Equifax data breach]

Former federal prosecutor Kamal Ghali says China’s efforts are well-documented.

Georgia Tech, especially the research institute that does classified work for the Defense Department, is another enticing target for foreign spies.

“Georgia Tech, as well as a number of other research institutions, are targets for that kind of espionage and cyberthreat activity by governments such as China,” Ghali said.

Channel 2′s Richard Belcher used the state open records law to ask for emails between the university and the FBI. It took six months for Georgia Tech to comply.

The emails reveal little. Most are entirely redacted.

However, Belcher learned that Tech researchers were interested in a conference in Wuhan, China, last July.

By chance, that was five months before Wuhan’s streets were emptied by the coronavirus threat.

The emails also reveal that Georgia Tech hired a new head of its insider threat program whose responsibilities include managing counterintelligence requirements with the Pentagon and the Intelligence Committee.

Georgia Tech laid out the extent to which federal agents were involved in vetting what little information Belcher received.

University spokeswoman Tracey Reeves wrote, “The agency asked us to send any documents we plan to give your station.” She added, “The institute officially sent the documents to the FBI’s local field office January 21, and on January 27, the FBI told us we were free to release the documents.”

“Both the Justice Department and the FBI really likes to have a proactive relationship with private institutions, disseminating threat information, and that’s been really true in the area of educational institutions,” Ghali said.

An FBI spokesman tried to clarify the agency’s role by telling Channel 2 Action News: “Georgia Tech came to us as a courtesy and asked us to review the documents. We did not redact them.”