Social media and other online data on both prominent Americans and the U.S. military have been collected since 2017 by a Chinese technology company that allegedly markets itself to clients in the country’s military, public and commercial sectors.
The results follow the retrieval of a copy of Shenzhen Zhenhua Data Technology’s database by an Australian cybersecurity firm that found it unsecured on the Internet, according to a Monday report in The Washington Post.
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The data cache, called the Overseas Key Information Database, reportedly provides insight into more than 2 million foreign political, military and business leaders ̵
It also provides details on countries’ infrastructure, military deployments and analysis of public opinion.
Although there is no evidence to suggest that the software is currently being used by the Chinese government, The Post noted that documents from Zhenhua identify the company as patriotic, with the military as the “target customer.”
Among Zhenhua’s list of business partners are big-data firms TRS, Huarong and state-owned subsidiary Global Tone Communication Technology.
Nevertheless, those who have reviewed the contents of the database have pointed out that its contents largely consisted of raw information copied from US providers such as Factiva, LexisNexis and LinkedIn, and that posts on social media are widely available.
However, Zhenhua’s digital footprint reveals an ambition, if not an agenda, to learn about the work of US government agencies and US companies based on control of open source data.
Australian-based Internet 2.0 cybersecurity firm founder Robert Potter and independent researcher Christopher Balding provided an incomplete copy of the underlying database to The Washington Post. The couple said they had downloaded and reconstructed approx. 1% of one terabyte of data.
Researchers and current and former U.S. officials say the findings are in line with a long-standing effort by China to expand its ability to gather information for strategic purposes – an effort that was witnessed first-hand in 2018 when Pentagon officials discovered a fitness tracking app revealed locations abroad US bases.
In addition, one of Zhenhua’s engineers, Zhou Peng, wrote on LinkedIn that he had built a “demonstration system for military deployment simulation.”
According to company records, the company filed patents from the end of 2018 to April this year related to news and information gathering as well as utilization of social media platforms.
“Social media can manipulate reality and weaken a country’s administrative, social, military or economic forces and can also lead to internal conflicts, social polarization and radicalism in a country,” Zhenhua said on his recently disabled page, china-revival.com.
On the company’s WeChat-based blog, an unnamed author writes about intelligence on how social media affects US presidential campaigns and US-China relations.
The blogger wrote that China’s National Intelligence Act of 2017 – which required Chinese organizations and citizens to assist in state intelligence work in accordance with the law – “promoted the healthy development of the intelligence industry.”
In 2015, the Chinese government issued its first high-level strategy document on big data, making it an important part of its Made in China 2025 industrial development plan.
While little is known about Zhenhua, the company operates from both Shenzhen and Beijing. It was founded in 2017 and is majority owned by former IBM engineer Wang Xuefeng.
A representative of Zhenhua told The Guardian on Monday that reports about the database were untrue.
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“Our data is all public on the Internet. We do not collect data. This is just a data integration. Our business model and partners are our trade secrets. There is no database with 2 million people, ”said the representative, the surname Sun, who identified himself as business manager.
“We are a private company,” she said, denying any connection to the Chinese government or the military. “Our customers are research organizations and business groups.”