A Chinese company was found to be profiling millions of individuals primarily using publicly available information
The database paid special attention to military targets and “politically exposed” individuals
The firm had aspirations to build military-grade intelligence using public information, but experts are divided over what threat they pose
A database unearthed by a Chinese company revealed a massive effort to gather digital information profiling over 2 million people, including over 50,000 Americans. While laying a wide net, the firm paid special attention to military targets and people who were of particular interest or politically exposed.
The database was leaked from an unsecured Internet server owned by Shenzhen Zhenhua Data Technology to Christopher Balding, a professor of Chinese economics who left Peking University citing personal security concerns. It seems to have been created primarily using public information from social media, supplemented by confidential data compiled into a “mosaic” of relevant facts. She collected data from Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, TikTok, criminal data and news to compile profiles that included birthdays, relatives, addresses, political connections and photos.
Anna Puglisi, a former national national counterintelligence officer for East Asia, characterized database as an extension of Chinas existing efforts to collect non-targeted data. These tactics fit into the much more holistic way China does to obtain information. Things like LinkedIn, social media – this seems like an evolution of that methodology.
The database was not completely out of focus, with some individuals branded as special interest or politically exposed. The term is not defined within the database, but includes former prime ministers, business executives and journalists.
A Chinese policeman stands outside the US Embassy in Beijing on September 12, 2020, after Washington called the new Chinese restrictions on its diplomats an ‘escalation’.Photo: AFP / GREG BAKER
He also paid special attention to military targets, compiling information on naval vessels such as the USS Dwight Eisenhower under their label for easy cataloging.
One collected post was a Facebook message from USS George Washington, urging military families not to post publicly about shipping destinations. Zhenhua was clear about their military aspirations, with an executive of one of their partners saying in a speech that 90% of military-grade intelligence could be extracted from open sources.
Many cyber security analysts remain convinced that the data is actually useful for military purposes. One who spoke to the Washington Post said Zhenhua’s claims were entirely inspiring. There may be gold there, but this is not something that is quite useful for military or intelligence targeting.
Balding remains concerned. A post on his personal blog reads, Reviewing raw data, even Chinese ‘experts’ continue to radically underestimate the investment in monitoring and surveillance tools dedicated to controlling and influencing not only its citizens and internal institutions, but assets outside China. I am motivated by the concern that the field of authoritarian threat from Communist China remains poorly understood, even by many Chinese experts. Hopefully, this provides some small evidence of their objectives and that we in open liberal democracies begin to take seriously.
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