From well-known businessmen, politicians, organized crime figures and famous pop singers to the daughter of a real estate magnate and average Joes and Janes. The Chinese company Zhenhua Data Information Technology has collected a mass of personal and privacy-sensitive data of 2.4 million people worldwide. Interesting detail: the company in question has close ties with the Chinese military and intelligence networks.
The Chinese Government Knows Everything
China has long been accused of secretly collecting privacy-sensitive information from friends and foes from all over the world. To do so, they use a variety of Chinese-owned firms and channels to source and share their data. For President Trump, this is one of the reasons to advocate a ban on TikTok in the US. Unless it ends up in the hands of an American company – with Oracle currently being the likely candidate. For the same reason, American companies are currently prohibited to work with Huawei and dozens of their affiliates and subsidiaries.
In a paper published this week, cybersecurity experts Robert Potter and Christopher Balding gave evidence that China is indeed tracking prominent people. To do so, they use the Shenzhen-based company, Zhenhua Data Information Technology, as a frontman. This company maintains a huge database, called the “Overseas Key Individuals Database” (OKIDB), which contains the personal data of at least 2.4 million people. Christopher Balding also posted a personal statement on the investigation.
The data includes privacy-sensitive details of prominent people, such as well-known entrepreneurs, politicians, journalists, senior military personnel, diplomats, accountants, lawyers and pop stars. Their children are also being closely monitored. “If you are a 14-year-old daughter of a politician, then we know that China’s secret service is monitoring your social media commentary and recording pieces of information that may be of interest in the future”, said Clive Hamilton, a US professor who obtained the database through an anonymous source. He in turn shared it with international media.
Database Contains A Wealth of Information
The Overseas Key Individuals Database (OKIDB) is filled with extremely sensitive personal information that is sometimes difficult to obtain. In addition to personal details, the OKIDB includes dates of birth, residential addresses, résumés, bank account details, messages from social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, TikTok), photos, relationship statuses and even complete psychological profiles and criminal records. It also maintains links to papers, blog posts, news stories, videos, and other content.
It is unclear exactly how Zhenhua Data obtained all this data. According to the company, the data is “publicly available on the internet”. However, Robert Potter and Christopher Balding found that up to 20% of the data was not open source. Some of this information is public. “We have reason to believe some of the data comes from unauthorized data access such as hacking but we cannot be certain. Non-open source data had a tendency to tie to higher security individuals but not always.”
According to Professor Hamilton, Zhenhua Data has at least twenty “collection nodes” worldwide where it stores all this information. About ten percent of the database’s content has been analyzed by American experts. They discovered profiles of 52,000 American citizens, 35,000 Australians, 10,000 Indians, 9,700 British and 5,000 Canadians, as well as a wealth of information that could be useful to hackers, cybercriminals and state actors.
Psychological Warfare Cheap and Highly Effective
Remarkably, one part of the database even scored individuals and institutions. The researchers were unable to reverse engineer the scoring algorithm, but they did discover some patterns in the scoring. The “higher” the score, the more influence the person has, for example. One security expert described the database as “Cambridge Analytica on steroids”, refererring to the company that collected the Facebook data of millions of users just before the 2016 US presidential election.
Zhenhua Data Information Technology was founded in 2018 and is located in the Chinese province of Shenzen, a region in the Southern part of China known for the many innovation and technology companies located there. Zhenhua Data is believed to be affiliated with China Zhenhua Electronics Group. This company in turn is owned by the state-owned China Electronic Information Industry Group (CETC), a military research company. The Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army are Zhenhua Data’s main customers.
Robert Potter and Christopher Balding shared their findings with media outlets in the US, Canada, the UK, Italy, Germany and Australia. When journalists approached Zhenhua Data early in September, the company almost immediately shutdown their website. The company’s founder, Wang Xuefeng, is said to be a strong supporter of “psychological warfare”. This form of warfare uses non-military tools to damage or influence debates and politics in certain countries. By spreading fake news via social media, for example, societies quite easily can be disrupted. Psychological warfare is not only highly effective, it is also significantly cheaper than traditional warfare.