A Chinese tech company with links to the PLA military has been accused of maintaining a database intent on collecting as much data as possible on millions of people around the world, especially high profile foreign military and civilian leaders.
"About 2.4 million people are included in the database, assembled mostly based on public open-source data such as social media profiles, analysts said," according to a reporting this week in The Guardian and others. "It was compiled by Zhenhua Data, based in the south-eastern Chinese city of Shenzhen."
The American who exposed the database, an academic named Christopher Balding, has had to flee China after the contents of part of the database were leaked to him. He was shocked by the "staggering" amount data after he reviewed some of the Zhenhua Data files, including data sets on a quarter-million people which had detailed info on over 50,000 Americans, and nearly an equal amount of Britons and Australians. So many Indians are also said to have been monitored that the story has set of a firestorm in India's national media.
"They include politicians, such as prime ministers Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison and their relatives, the royal family, celebrities and military figures," The Guardian continues.
Balding says a concerned Chinese citizen who had access to the secretive database leaked it, doing “an enormous service and is proof that many inside China are concerned about CCP [Chinese Communist party] authoritarianism and surveillance”.
But Zhenhua Data is rejecting the reports of invasive surveillance and data collection as "untrue", arguing that “Our data are all public data on the internet. We do not collect data. This is just a data integration. Our business model and partners are our trade secrets,” according to an official spokesperson.
The spokesperson specifically claimed “There is no database of 2 million people.”
“We are a private company,” she said, denying any links to the Chinese government or military. “Our customers are research organisations and business groups.”
Some tech commentators are pushing back, saying such large-scale databases containing personal details on millions of individuals are "typical" for the industry:
Zhenhua Data leak may be typical contacts list - tech expert https://t.co/1VzBPaUyr5— RNZ News (@rnz_news) September 16, 2020
However, Balding's description sounds like China's own version of the Cambridge Analytica scandal — or essentially open source culling of vast amounts of data without an individual's awareness or consent for some ulterior political use. The newly revealed Chinese database uses “technically complex using very advanced language, targeting, and classification tools,” according to Balding.
“From politics to organised crime or technology and academia just to name a few, the database flows from sectors the Chinese state and linked enterprises are known to target,” Balding said. In examining a single institution, the information can be used to study how to exert influence.
Further, Fox News unearthed some interesting and revealing things previously written on Zhenhua Data's website, since scrubbed in light of the new media scrutiny:
“Social media can manipulate reality and weaken a country’s administrative, social, military or economic forces, and may also lead to internal conflicts, social polarization and radicalism in a country,” Zhenhua said on its recently deactivated page, china-revival.com.
Apparently there are US military members as well as "prominent Americans" whose data was also being collected.
(2/2)This is a sample from the Air Force data. Does anyone know what the "airmenID" and "medicalexpirationdate" fields relate to? Are those values potentially sensitive and not public? pic.twitter.com/Ii21UFQBxS— Jeremy Kirk (@Jeremy_Kirk) September 14, 2020
What the data is or was ultimately being used for is anybody's guess, and there's no evidence to yet emerged that it was gathered from anything but through 'open source' methods, such as from Facebook, Factiva, LexisNexis, LinkedIn, or other social media and public networking platforms.
There is the possibility that private data has been gleaned through hacks, data from which Zhenhua later utilized for its massive database.