In this technology-driven era, when all the information is stored digitally by most people, cyber crimes and data leaks are on a rise too. Lately, data leaks have become so frequent all of a sudden and more commonly, these are being associated with China’s name everywhere. This makes the prediction of Chinese companies’ business fate more and more difficult among the growing global privacy concerns.
Recently, a leak of an exhaustive database compiled by a Chinese tech company has caused havoc around the world. The database includes personal details of a large number of people, a lot of whom occupy powerful positions in different domains. The Chinese company also reportedly has links with the country’s military and intelligence networks.
- Why is it such a big problem?
Zhenhua Data Information Technology Co. Limited calls itself a leader when it comes to using big data for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and ‘hybrid warfare’. The authoritarian government of the ruling party of the People’s Republic of China, its military, and several privately owned firms often operate as a big and coordinated family, of which countries around the world are targets. Moreover, Former Northern Army Commander Lt Gen D S Hooda (Retd), who headed a panel that called for setting up specialized information warfare units after retirement, said that in 2017 China passed a law under which all Chinese companies were required to assist China’s intelligence-gathering operations; This means that they cannot deny the government for any information they ask.
The database includes details of as many as 2.4 million people collected more or less from public open-source data such as social media profiles. The data was compiled by Zhenhua Data. It is based in Shenzen, a southeastern city of China.
Internet 2.0 is a cybersecurity consultancy firm based in Canberra has been able to recover the details of nearly 250,000 people out of which 52,000 are Americans, 35,000 are Australians and almost 10,000 are Britons. Its major customers are the governments of the United States and Australia. The list included politicians such as Boris Johnson (the British Prime Minister) as well as Scott Morrison, the Royal Family, famous celebrities, and military figures.
The data also includes prominent faces such as T K Kurien, the Chief Investment Officer at the Premji Invest; Zomato founder and CEO Deepinder Goyal; Group CFO, Mahindra Group; PK; Chief Executive, Reliance Retail; Swiggy co-founder and CEO Nandan Reddy; Nykaa co-founder and CEO Falguni Nayar; Vineet Sekhsaria, Country Head, Morgan Stanley, Real Estate Investing; Flipkart co-founder Binny Bansal; Uber India’s head of driver operations Pavan Vaish, and PayU business head Nameet Potnis.
A detailed analysis declares that it is most common for the venture capitalists and angel investors to be tracked in OKIDB. The founders, Chief Executive Officers (CEO), Chief Financial Officers (CFOs), Chief Technology Officer (CTOs), and Chief Operational Officers (COOs) of key sectors.
In response to all the comments, the head of Zhenhua replied that the report is false and that all the data is publically available on the internet; Zhenhua does not collect any data but integrates it, which is their business model. It also said that they are a private company and have no linkages with the Chinese government or military.
- To whom was the data leaked?
According to reports, the data was made available to an American academic named Christopher Balding. He had lived in Shenzen before returning to the US on account of security concerns recently. The data he received was shared with Internet 2.0 for the purpose of recovery and analysis.
Balding described the data thus received as ‘staggering’. He also said that the person who leaked the data had taken a precarious risk by doing this social service. The act also added another point to the list of reasons why people are so concerned about the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarianism and surveillance.
- What was in the data?
According to Balding, the data was pretty comprehensive and included information from several sources. It was made up using advanced language, classification, and targeting tools which in turn, made it extremely technical and complex.
The information derived was a threat to several crucial and influential individuals and institutions. The data wasn’t confined to any particular industry or category; it included people from the field of politics, technology, business, sports, academia, and whatnot. The database included pretty much everyone, from low-level individuals to highly popular public images.
The co-founder of Internet 2.0, Robert Potter, said that the data was pretty “ambitious” and “exhaustive” in its scope and that the sources from which the data were assembled included Twitter, Crunchbase, Facebook as well as LinkedIn.
He also said that Open source does not exactly mean that people want the data to be made publicly available. Moreover, in an interview, Potter explained that the reason Cambridge Analytica was infamous was that it misused the permissions given and not because it accessed Facebook users’ private messages.
- Why is this data crucial?
If put into the wrong hands this leaked data can have disastrous implications. It will also open several opportunities for the receiver to carry out targeted influential activities using dis and misinformation, general muddying of the democratic information environment, bribery, and inauthentic simulation.
If the reports are true, it can help the People’s Republic of China and companies to manipulate its military, propaganda, or security in its favor using the data. The information has its own results when we talk about privacy protection and the exploitative nature of the data.
The database includes 10,000 Indian individuals and firms. This occurs especially when investments from China in Indian start-ups have risen by over 10 times ($6.4 billion in 2019 from $381 million in 2016). Moreover, the ongoing border uncertainty can disrupt this investment boom from China.
The in-focus health sector and the education sector are also important portfolios that are being tracked. As expected, digital payment applications, supply chain, and delivery applications also form a crucial part of the data. Tech startups and urban transportation segments are also under watch.