More Than 35,000 Australians Spied On by Military-Linked Chinese Company

September 14, 2020 Updated: September 17, 2020

A Chinese company with links to Beijing’s military and secretive intelligence arm has amassed the personal details of more than 35,000 Australians as part of a giant global database targeting influential figures and their families.

The company, Zhenhua Data, is tied to the People’s Liberation Army, Ministry of State Security, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and has collated the profiles of 2.4 million people across the world.

The data contains information on 35,558 Australian individuals, including prominent people in politics, business, law, academia, and defence. It includes birth dates, addresses, marital statuses, and political leanings.

Notable Australians include Prime Minister Scott Morrison and information on his discussions with U.S. President Trump. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his family, and member of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, Andrew Hastie and his young family.

SCOTT MORRISON US VISIT
U.S. President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a ceremonial welcome on the south lawn of the White House in Washington DC, United States, Sept. 20, 2019. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Titled the Overseas Key Individuals Database, it also includes information on former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his son, former Treasurer Peter Costello, current Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe, former Australian Ambassador Joe Hockey and his sons, Atlassian founder Mike Cannon-Brookes, several judges, celebrities, and academics.

Bank records, job applications and psychological profiles were also included in the data, much of which was taken from public documents, including news articles, criminal records, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and TikTok.

However, 20 percent of the data is not open source, including confidential documents, indicating that the information was obtained through hacking or the dark web.

Zhenhua Data’s CEO Wang Xuefeng, has endorsed wagingunrestricted warfare” through manipulating public opinion and “psychological warfare,” according to a WeChat post.

The database was leaked by an anonymous employee of Zhenhua Data and discovered by Professor Chris Balding, who worked at Peking University until 2018 when he fled to Vietnam over safety concerns.

cyber code
Hands are seen on a keyboard in front of a displayed cyber code in this picture illustration taken October 4, 2018. (Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters)

In a statement published on his website, Balding says he was researching claims into Huawei until he stumbled onto the “Holy Grail” for China researchers. In turn, Balding provided the information to a global consortium of media outlets in Australia, the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Italy, and Germany.

He claims the data validates long-held suspicions surrounding the CCP’s surveillance and monitoring operations.

“What cannot be underestimated is the breadth and depth of the Chinese surveillance state and its extension around the world,” he said. “The world is only at the beginning stages of understanding how much China invests in intelligence and influence operations using the type of raw data we have to understand their targets.”

“We are working with governments, journalists, and select academics or think tanks around the world to help provide the necessary range of expertise needed to analyse and understand the data,” he added.

The Shadow Minister for Home Affairs Kristina Keneally said the database was concerning and people were right to feel alarmed.

Epoch Times Photo
A participant takes part in Seccon 2016, an international cybersecurity contest, Jan. 28, 2017 in Tokyo. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

“Of course, countries have long collected intelligence, but it’s important each country’s independence is respected,” she told ABC radio on Sept. 14.

“What this highlights is that the threat of foreign interference and the capacity to amass big data sets on a population is real and we’ve got to take that threat very seriously,” Keneally said.

Matt Warren, professor of cybersecurity at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology said Beijing conducting “industry-level data collection” was not surprising, especially given the extent of its surveillance domestically.

“Zhenhua Data are only the tip of the iceberg, compared to what happens in China itself,” he told The Epoch Times.

Warren said that since much of the information is open source, it is not technically spying. However, the real concern is what Zhenhua Data and the CCP could do with the data.

He urged individuals to be more careful with their social media profiles and of adding people they have never met in real life.

“The issue comes when people post about their family on Facebook, or their work activities in Linkedin, their new ‘friends’ will collect and store that information. The other issue is that people do not understand their settings on social media and post things as public rather than being private,” he added.