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New Florida law aims to stop foreign spies. Here are two cases backers say could've been caught

Supporters say the newly signed laws strengthen institutional vetting and increase penalties for intellectual property theft.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Two new state laws aim to crack down on foreign influence and corporate espionage in Florida.

State leaders like House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, say Florida is a growing target for foreign agents who are interfering with our research at universities and institutions.

Signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday, one requires state agencies, colleges, and universities to disclose all foreign gifts of more than $50,000 and strengthens vetting of foreign applicants for research positions.

The second makes the penalties for anyone who attempts to steal trade secrets more severe.

This is typically an area under the federal government's purview.

RELATED: Gov. DeSantis signs 2 bills aiming to combat foreign influence in Florida

Both bills received bipartisan support from state lawmakers, but critics say they could deter talented researchers from coming to the state.

While the law is broad enough to cover influence from any foreign nation, backers like Sprowls have taken particular aim at China.

“China is by far the most sophisticated,” Sprowls told 10 Tampa Bay. “It’s not just a question of being taken advantage of it is a question of, globally, that the taxpayers are spending billions of dollars on this research and they’re having it stolen from them.”

There are several recent examples right here in Florida Sprowls and others say make a strong case for this kind of crackdown.

RELATED: Moffitt Cancer Center’s China controversy sparks state investigation

In December 2019, six researchers resigned from Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa after authorities found they didn't disclose their ties to China.

At the center of the investigation were their connections to China's "Thousand Talents" program.

Moffitt had to return $1 million to the state, which was used to pay for the salary and staff of one of those researchers.

Earlier this year, U.S. leaders accused a former University of Florida professor, who was in living in Tampa at the time, of fraudulently acquiring $1.8 million in federal grant money while hiding support he received from the Chinese government. The former professor fled to China in August 2019.

“They’re stealing our intellectual property, they’re stealing our cancer research, they’re stealing our autonomous submarine technology,” Sprowls said. “This is a pervasive problem not just here in Florida but nationally – the only difference between what's happening here and nationally is we as a state have decided to do something about it.”

Critics say these laws could lead to professors and students being unfairly targeted for the alleged actions of a few and, at worse, that this is a policy rooted in xenophobia.

“I don’t think that people who are engaged in good behavior have anything to worry about,” Sprowls said in response to those criticisms.

“We have to be more vigilant than we've been before—we don't shut people out, we ask questions and we make sure we're tracking information." 

Florida's "Foreign Influence" bill will become law on July 1, 2021, with the "Corporate Espionage" bill becoming law later this year on October 1.

You can read more about HB 7017 by clicking here. More on HB 1523 can also be found here.

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