The threat of espionage from adversary states is high and persistent, according to the Danish Security and Intelligence Service, who has recently launched a new campaign to highlight the dangers of spying at Danish universities. But the posters have not gone down well with everyone – and one poster in particular is said to encourage a climate of suspicion.

To protect Danish research, people need to know about the threat of spying and the risk that knowledge is unintentionally transferred to hostile foreign states, says the Danish Security and Intelligence Service in connection with their campaign on research security. Here is one of the campaign messages, displayed at a bus stop on Nørrebrogade near Aarhus University. Photo: Omnibus Photo: Omnibus

This article is translated by Sarah Jennings

Denmark is facing a significant, multifaceted and persistent threat from intelligence services in foreign states – mainly Russia and China. This was the message of the Danish Security and Intelligence Service’s (PET’s) assessment of the threat against Denmark, which it published in a report in May 2023.

The threat prompted PET to launch a new campaign at Danish universities to make researchers and staff aware of the espionage risk on campuses across the country. 

The campaign is called 'Sikker forskning – lidt af en videnskab' (Research security – Let’s get it down to a science) and involves displaying what some might describe as humorous and ironic posters and banners in and around Danish universities.

“Avoid becoming employee of the year in the Russian intelligence service,” it reads on the bus stop next to the Nordre Ringgade intersection, for example.

But not all university employees think the posters are fun or appropriate. At the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, 181 researchers – many of them internationals themselves – have signed a petition published in Ingeniøren in which they describe the campaign as an “explicitly racist campaign that singles out non-white immigrants and explicitly describes them as people you should not have as colleagues or even as friends.” They refer specifically to a poster at a bus stop outside the institute which reads: "You're getting off at the Niels Bohr Institute. But where will your research end up?"

At Aarhus University, many people have been puzzled by a poster hanging up in a building in Katrinebjerg. The poster states – in English – that international students and researchers in Denmark can help transfer knowledge worthy of protection to foreign states. “Your awareness can be decisive in combatting this threat,” the poster concludes.


One of the people who was shocked by the poster is Astrid Meyer, who is a PhD student at the Department of Digital Design and Information Studies and works in the AU buildings at Katrinebjerg. She was flabbergasted when an international associate professor drew her attention to the poster. And then angry and sad, she explains.   

“I went down to use a coffee machine on a different floor than usual, and I met one of my colleagues who is not from Denmark. We chatted a bit, and then he pointed to this poster, which I hadn’t seen until that point. He said, ‘Isn’t this a bit strange?’. I was a little confused at first, because I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. I was having coffee with somebody who had suddenly been labelled by this very official poster. I read it several times to see whether it could be interpreted in a different way, but I ended up feeling that this poster was simply singling out people who work with us every day. It encourages a climate of suspicion,” says Astrid Meyer.

Earlier that week, before her colleague had pointed out the poster, she had noticed various posters being put up around the university, but she hadn’t really considered how they could affect international employees, she explains. She understands the message of the campaign – that universities have valuable knowledge that needs to be protected – but she thinks this message is being communicated in a dubious way. In her opinion, the poster in question completely crosses the line.

“The poster paints an image of an enemy and connects this image to the people who live and work in Denmark and who are a part of our university. I interpret the poster as saying that it’s okay to be suspicious of these people because they are not Danish. I think it’s difficult to interpret it any other way. And I’m enraged that people can now appeal to an official PET poster and say to someone: You are suspicious.”


Astrid Meyer has posted a picture of the poster on her PhD Facebook group, and several people have reacted with a crying or confused emoji.

She doesn’t buy the argument that the PET poster is simply trying to draw attention to the threat and that it doesn’t single anybody out.

“The poster’s appraoch is to point towards a non-specific yet delimited group of people, and this will backfire. Lots of people fall into this category,” she says.

In her opinion, international students and researchers at AU will end up feeling unwelcome, and she fears that this will ultimately affect the research collaboration between international and Danish researchers.


The campaign and its posters were designed by PET, so Aarhus University is not responsible for the material as such. But the university is keen for its employees to reflect on and discuss the threat of spying, which has become more pronounced in recent years. So the university has welcomed the campaign. Brian Vinter, who is vice-dean for research at the Faculty of Technical Sciences and chair of the committee tasked with implementing national guidelines for international research and innovation collaboration (URIS), explains the university’s standpoint.

“We are keen for our researchers to start a conversation about whom we collaborate with and which research areas are particularly at stake. It’s a conversation we need to have, and it’s only researchers – who know their own research – who can engage in this dialogue,” says Brian Vinter.

It’s natural that international researchers take their work home with them when they leave Denmark, and it’s also natural that we collaborate with researchers from all over the world, emphasises Brian Vinter. At the university, we just want to make sure that researchers working in the fields most at risk consider the threat, he points out.


The campaign reminds him of the 1980s, when a nationwide campaign with the opposite message was launched: “A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.”

“At that time, there was widespread xenophobia, so the campaign tried to make people see that they didn’t need to view the world that way. But, since then, universities have assumed that everyone has only good intentions. And rationally we know this isn’t the case. So now we’re trying to say: Remember that there are some people out there who don’t want the best for us. Remember to talk about that. Then PET decided to put a humorous angle on it, and I can understand why this has provoked many different reactions,” says Brian Vinter.

He has also seen some of the critical reactions to the posters, but he stresses that it’s not up to him to evaluate how individual people receive the campaign’s message.

“I think we need to try to explain that the campaign is about sensitive research areas more than it’s about individuals. We don’t have many sensitive research fields at AU, so it’s far from every researcher who needs to worry about his or her own research. There are only a few areas for which we need to make it clear that it’s in our interests for the knowledge to stay in Denmark or Europe,” he says.

Some people think that because the posters are directed at such a wide group they could end up casting suspicion on almost everyone at the university.

“If they do, then we need to make it absolutely clear that this is not something Aarhus University wants to be part of. We don’t want to cast suspicion on people,” says Brian Vinter, who also points out that employees should be protected against such a form of guilty by association.

In the technical and scientific fields, the campaign has already started to make a difference, explains Brian Vinter. People are talking about the issue, and some people have even contacted us to report things they think are suspicious.

“It’s not that people are scared. They are just aware that everyone wants the best for us. In that way, I think that the campaign is doing some good,” he says.


At the Niels Bohr Institute, a poster asking researchers to reflect on whether their research could end up in Tehran has attracted a lot of attention. In an opinion piece, 181 researchers – many of them PhD students – call on Copenhagen Municipality to “remove this poster and all the posters belonging to this misjudged and prejudiced campaign.”

“We also call on the organisers of this campaign to issue a formal apology,” they write.

In response to the original posters, the 181 researchers have made their own, which reads: “We are researchers. Our work ends up all over the world.”

On the social media platform X, one of the early career researchers at the institute who signed the opinion piece has explained why the timing of this particular poster is unfortunate.

“It’s unfortunate timing that our most recently appointed professor is Iranian, who joined us three weeks ago, and I am against any suspicion of him or our other Iranian colleagues,” wrote the PhD student Rasmus Damgaard Nielsen.


According to PET, Iran is one of the countries that carries out intelligence activities in Denmark. In August last year, PET published a document with “advice for researchers and staff on preventing espionage” in which they provided a specific example of a spying threat in the Nordic countries. In November 2022, a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology was convicted of violating the Norwegian regulations for the export of scientific knowledge after he gave visiting scholars from Iran access to a laboratory with sensitive equipment and access to the university’s data systems that are subject to export control. One of these visiting scholars installed a programme that gave him remote access to data from the system, PET reports.

Back in 2009, many media outlets reported on PET’s request for Danish universities to disclose the names of all Iranian students in Denmark who were studying subjects with access to chemicals. This was supposedly to prevent them helping Iran produce weapons of mass destruction.

Written response from Karen Lund Petersen, head of the Center for Innovation and Knowledge Security at PET

“The threat against Danish research and innovation is significant, and we see a persistent interest in Danish knowledge, technology and knowhow from states such as Russia, China and Iran. PET’s recent campaign – which, incidentally, was developed in close dialogue with university management teams – is not about the ethnicity of the individual researcher but about the threat from foreign intelligence services. It’s aim is to raise awareness of this threat and of the dilemmas researchers experience qua their key role in averting this threat. Universities have rolled out this campaign through their own communication channels.

Together with the universities, PET has identified a need for a targeted effort among academic staff and, in this connection, has initiated a dialogue about the responsibilities of academic communities, security awareness, and potential courses of action. If Denmark is to exploit the full potential of its knowledge and innovation, research institutions need to include knowledge security in their processes to a greater extent – and preferably from the very beginning.

To support this effort at the universities, PET has also increased its support for university management by providing advice, warning of threats, and helping to establish security organisations.”


Omnibus confronted PET about the critical reaction to the campaign and asked whether they had considered the possibility that some people would be offended by the message. In a lengthy written reply, Karen Lund Petersen, who is head of the Center for Innovation and Knowledge Security at PET, emphasises that it is not about the ethnicity of the individual researcher.

“PET’s recent campaign – which, incidentally, was developed in close dialogue with university management teams – is not about the ethnicity of the individual researcher but about the threat from foreign intelligence services,” states Karen Lund Petersen.

When the campaign was launched, she told that the intelligence service was aware of the risk that the campaign might be negatively received. Debate is good, she explained.

“It’s likely that not everyone will agree with our way of communicating. But we hope that it will at least raise awareness of the threat we’re facing,” said Karen Lund Petersen to

In a piece for Markedsføring, one of the creative forces behind the campaign, Thomas Nørgaard, says that he raised the issue of casting suspicion early in the process. 

“Because of this, we were aware that the campaign should not be about individuals or nationalities but about intelligence services and totalitarian regimes that want to get their hands on our research and use it in inappropriate ways,” he says. 

He believes the important message of the campaign would have got lost if they had opted for the finger pointing approach rather than the humorous approach. We discussed the campaign’s angle with a number of researchers before we launched it, and they were on board, he explains. 


According to PET, foreign states have a particular interest in the areas of high-technology and defence policy – in particular energy technology, biotechnology, quantum technology, space technology, robotics, defence industry products and controlled goods (products with export restrictions).

“If foreign states are granted unwanted access to our groundbreaking research, this could have serious implications for our security policy. We need to protect the freedom and security that we currently enjoy – also in relation to conducting research. This also involves ethical considerations and financial dilemmas,” writes PET.

PET’s assessment of the security risk from last year focuses mainly on China and Russia, but it also mentions Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.


Researchers are also worried about foreign espionage. In July 2023, the Danish Society of Engineers – the trade union for university graduates in the technical and natural sciences – conducted a survey in which 15 per cent of surveyed researchers said they were worried about the threat of foreign spies targeting their research. This corresponds to one in seven researchers. The survey also revealed that many researchers are unsure whom they should contact with questions or suspicions of foreign espionage. 63 per cent responded that they did not know where to direct their enquiries.