How Chinese Data Trove on 2 Million People Serves Beijing’s Unrestricted Warfare

How Chinese Data Trove on 2 Million People Serves Beijing’s Unrestricted Warfare
A Chinese hacker using a computer in Dongguan, in China's southern Guangdong Province, on Aug. 4, 2020. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images)
Cathy He
News Analysis

A Chinese database containing the personal information of millions of people around the globe was recently leaked to Western media, offering a glimpse into the regime’s vast data harvesting campaign targeting foreigners.

A private Chinese company, Shenzhen Zhenhua Data Technology, had amassed a database with files on 2.4 million people, compiled mostly from open-source material such as social media posts and online data. A reconstruction of 10 percent of the database by an Australian cybersecurity firm named Internet 2.0 revealed that it includes records on about 52,000 Americans, 35,000 Australians, 9,700 Britons, and 5,000 Canadians.

People in the database range from ordinary business professionals to prominent figures such as U.S. naval officers, China watchers in Washington, members of the British royal family, and company leaders. The data cache also provides details on countries’ infrastructure, movements of military assets, and public opinion analysis.

Zhenhua marketed the database, called the Overseas Key Information Database, to the Chinese military, government agencies, and commercial clients, according to The Washington Post. In company documents, it described itself as a patriotic firm, with the military as its main target customer.

The database was leaked by a source in China to American academic Christopher Balding, who was previously based in Vietnam but has since returned to the United States because of security concerns. He then gave it to Internet 2.0 for reconstruction and analysis.

Details were published by a consortium of media outlets last week, including The Washington Post and The Daily Telegraph in the UK.

Zhenhua said in a response to The Guardian, “There is no database of 2 million people,” and denied any links to the Chinese government or military. A representative for the company said Zhenhua’s customers are research organizations and business groups.

Experts told The Epoch Times that such a denial was unsurprising.

Michael Shoebridge, director of defense at think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), said the statement “cannot be taken at face value,” given that Chinese laws compel companies to assist Chinese security and intelligence agencies, and they must publicly deny doing so.

Unrestricted Hybrid Warfare

Casey Fleming, CEO of intelligence and security strategy firm BlackOps Partners, said the intelligence gathered in the database is used to support the Chinese regime’s “unrestricted hybrid warfare” operations. This includes espionage, covert overseas influence campaigns, and stealing foreign innovation and military technology.
Unrestricted hybrid warfare refers to a strategy crafted by two Chinese military colonels in the 1990s, which espouses using a series of unconventional tactics designed to accomplish the objectives of war without engaging in actual combat.

The ultimate goal of this strategy, Fleming said, is to “destroy democracy for the takeover of Chinese communism globally.”

Zhenhua’s majority owner, Wang Xuefeng, a former IBM engineer, had previously posted on Chinese social media about waging “hybrid warfare” by manipulating public opinion and “psychological warfare,” according to Australian broadcaster ABC.

Nicholas Eftimiades, a former U.S. senior intelligence official and author of the book “Chinese Intelligence Operations,” said that the database would help Chinese intelligence to target individuals primed for recruitment or blackmail—those with “vulnerabilities” that can be exploited, such as “a need for money, [or] political feelings against the administration.” For instance, the Chinese regime could look for social media posts that suggest dissatisfaction with the government or financial difficulties.

For influence operations, the process is similar: Chinese agencies would look for people who post views supportive of Beijing’s policies, Eftimiades said. They would then work to support that person, their organization, and amplify their views.

Shoebridge pointed out that the database includes profiles on children of powerful people such as politicians and business executives, allowing the regime to target these individuals through vulnerabilities found in their offspring.

“That’s a pretty disturbing potential use of data like that,” he said.

At the same time, many of these children may themselves become influential people later in life. And so “the ability to exploit and influence those individuals is much greater because you’ve got a much more comprehensive understanding of them over time,” Shoebridge said.

Massive Data Collection

The Zhenhua data leak provides but a small window into the Chinese communist regime’s overall data harvesting activities.

“The scope is beyond most people’s comprehension,” Fleming said.

Shoebridge likened the database to a single plastic ball in a large ball pit. This dataset would be combined with data compiled by other Chinese entities to be used in a range of operations to further the regime’s interests.

“It’s the interaction of companies with data like this with other companies and government data that gives the power,” he said.

This strategy is reflected in the regime’s “civil-military fusion” doctrine, which seeks to leverage innovations by private enterprises to power military development, Shoebridge said.

An October 2019 report by ASPI said the regime is creating a “massive and global data-collection ecosystem” by harnessing the capabilities of state-owned enterprises and private Chinese technology firms.

It cites the example of Global Tone Communication Technology Co., a subsidiary of a Chinese state-owned enterprise that’s supervised by the regime’s central propaganda department. The tech firm focuses on “big data” collection and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies such as facial recognition. It collects vast swathes of data around the world in more than 65 languages and processes it for use by Beijing for intelligence, security, and propaganda purposes.

Eftimiades believes there are likely dozens—if not hundreds—of Chinese companies involved in such big data collection to aid the regime. This doesn’t include those run by China’s security agencies, which are vacuuming up data on all 1.4 billion citizens via the country’s sweeping high-tech surveillance apparatus.

Chinese hackers have also stolen the personal data of tens of millions of Americans over the years, which are being fed to these databases in China and used to perfect AI tools, Eftimiades said. This includes the 2014 hack into the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the federal government’s personnel agency; the breach of credit reporting company Equifax in 2017; and the 2016 cyberattack of health insurer Anthem.
The Epoch Times reported in February 2016, citing an insider source in China, that Chinese security agencies had built a database to handle the troves of stolen American personal information—including sensitive personal information detailed in the security clearances of 21 million of current and former federal employees in the OPM hack, and personal records of nearly 80 million of Anthem’s current and former customers and employees.

That database ran on powerful software capable of ingesting huge amounts of data and then analyzing it for relationships between different individuals and events.

Cathy He is the politics editor at the Washington D.C. bureau. She was previously an editor for U.S.-China and a reporter covering U.S.-China relations.
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