Blogconfidential: Tinker, tailor, student, spy

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online. This week: Tinker, tailor, student, spy

April 7, 2011

I was clearing out my office this week in preparation for a move to a rather bleak Ikea-style new-build just down the road. I am sad to leave the lovely Victorian building that has been my academic home for the past 15 years, but at least the university has been very helpful, supplying me with all the support necessary to make the move run smoothly.

As I was sorting out my desk I dropped some pens. While retrieving them, I noticed a small circular yellow metallic object about the size of a 50p coin but twice as thick attached to the underside of my desk. If it weren't for the move I would never have noticed it - it was very well hidden.

The object seemed to have a small speaker-type mechanism, about a quarter of an inch thick, in the centre. My immediate thought was that it was some form of surveillance equipment. A quick Google search backed up my suspicions: it looked like an "infinity transmitter", a state-of-the-art listening device.

I am a scientist and work on new energy sources. Was my office being bugged? If so, by whom?

I have never had a particularly warm relationship with my university: I bring in regular research grants and it seems relatively grateful, while at the same time increasing my teaching workload. It is, I suppose, possible that my own institution is the culprit, as I was "in discussions" with another academic institution last year.

Another possibility would be one of my overseas postgraduate students, who could be involved in some form of academic espionage.

I don't want to cause a fuss, but I'm at a loss about what to do about this bizarre issue.

What a startling discovery. You are right to be extremely worried. I know there has been some concern about academic espionage recently, but this is the first example I have come across.

Fortunately, this is one case where your course of action is absolutely clear: you must alert your head of department and your vice-chancellor immediately.

I think it is highly unlikely that your own university would spy on one of its own, but a variety of bizarre issues have cropped up in this column, so who knows? I would hope your university takes your concerns seriously and contacts the police, and that they undertake a full investigation.

With more overseas students in the UK and the competitive nature of industrial developments in a globalised economy, we should all be more vigilant about such matters. As a matter of standard practice, I would never leave students in my office on their own. Given that you may be the victim of espionage, your university should contact a professional company to sweep all academic offices as a matter of urgency.

Why should some individual or organisation be allowed to steal your research? It's a crime. If your university won't take responsibility, you must, by contacting the police.

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