Tens of thousands of Australians — including celebrities, politicians and journalists — have had their data collected by a company with links to Chinese military and intelligence networks.
Researchers say the massive collection of information is being used as a “psychological warfare” tool to manipulate public opinion in Australia.
The database was published overnight after it was leaked to a US academic, and it shows 2.4 million people around the world have been targeted — including 35,000 Australians.
The data was collected by Chinese company Zhenhua Data which is understood to be used by China’s intelligence service, the Ministry of State Security.
Zhenhua has the People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese Communist Party as its main clients.
The database appears to focus on individuals and institutions China deems influential or important, from politicians and their families to professors and think tanks to scientists and tech leaders to organised crime figures.
WHAT INFORMATION DO THEY HAVE?
The leaks show the majority of what Zhenhua has been collecting is “open-source” data, including dates of birth, addresses, marital status, along with photographs, political associations, relatives and social media IDs.
“The data was crawled from such well known platforms as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn as well as others,” a report into the data found.
“In addition to personal information, they logged information on posts, likes, and retweets. This allowed for a wide variety of relationship and key person targeting.”
However, researchers found that up to 20 per cent of the data was not from an open source, meaning it may have been obtained on the dark web or through hacking.
This information could include confidential bank records, job applications, psychological profiles and public sector employee records.
“The database included large amounts of public sector employee records,” the researchers found. “This includes everyone from known politicians to political aides to low level military personnel. The breadth of data capture was quite extensive.”
Researchers found that, once the company had created a “profile” from the data, including a photo taken from public sites the targets maintained accounts on such as Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn, it was stored on publicly available Chinese servers with links for each individual.
It suggests the company is part of a complex global operation creating intricate profiles of individuals and organisations, and potentially probing for compromise opportunities.
WHO IS ON THE LIST?
There are 35,000 Australians in total on the list, but 656 are classified as being of “special interest” or “politically exposed”.
Singer Natalie Imbruglia features among the wider list of names as does One Nation co-founder David Oldfield, National Party President Larry Anthony, the son of former treasurer Peter Costello, ex-Labor MP Emma Husar, News Corp journalist Ellen Whinnett and ABC director Georgie Somerset.
The researchers found the list also continued the names of criminal figures around the world.
Among Australia’s names were self-proclaimed Perth sheik Junaid Thorne and Geelong fraudster Robert Andrew Kirsopp.
Researchers said they couldn’t understand what the significance of the crime figures was.
“There is no clear reason for the inclusion of such inclusion of a significant number of
organised crime figures at both the widely known level as well as lesser known figures in various criminal organisations,” they said.
WHAT IS THE DATA BEING USED FOR?
Worryingly, Zhenhua Data’s chief executive Wang Xuefeng, a former IBM employee, has publicly endorsed waging “hybrid warfare” through manipulation of public opinion and “psychological warfare”.
Researchers say the a “fundamental purpose” of the data appears to be “information warfare”.
The database includes a big data analytics layer that allows analysts to track key influencers and how news and opinion moves through social media platforms,” they said.
“China via multiple channels has moved actively into public information platforms
attempting to influence the debate and narrative about China.
The data collected about individuals and institutions and the overlaid analytic tools from social media platforms provide China enormous benefit in opinion formation, targeting, and messaging.”
They say it is also possible for China even in individualised meetings be able to craft messaging or target the individuals they deem necessary to target.
However, so far, they have not been able to obtain “direct evidence” of Chinese agencies using this data to craft information warfare campaigns, messaging, anonymous account usage, or individual influence targeting.
WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?
The academic who obtained the data, Professor Chris Balding, says it shows China’s ambition to create a “global authoritarian techno surveillance state”.
He had worked at the elite Peking University until 2018 when he fled over fears for his physical safety.
Living in Vietnam, he says its well-known that the Chinese government collects compromising data on its own citizens, but this new data shows they are attempting to dit on a global scale.
“The threat of China as an authoritarian techno surveillance state is real and happening now,” he said. “Not just within China but around the world.”
In his research paper, he said leaked information was the first direct evidence of data collected by China on its monitoring and data collection on foreign individuals and institutions for purposes of intelligence and influence operations.
He says Australia should be aware of what’s happening.
“The unique blend of civil-military fusion pushed by China that works with private firms to engage in state policy activities such as intelligence gathering should be concerning,” he said. “Foreign individuals and institutions working in sensitive or influential sectors need to be aware of how China is targeting them for influence operations.
“China is using a variety of firms and channels to gather data to inform its influence and intelligence operations.”
Chillingly, researchers said open and democratic societies were being put at risk by this type of information warfare.
“Open liberal societies fail to grasp the threats embodied in Chinese authoritarian communism by ignoring non-traditional warfare and influence operations,” they said.
“The information warfare being touted by Zhenhua targets key institutions in democracies such as the children of politicians, universities, and key industrial sectors.
“These flow into information transmission and policy formation.
“Open liberal democracies would be wise to improve data privacy and security and understand the threats.”