News broke on Sunday that China is building a sprawling and detailed database on millions of prominent people around the world, mainly harvesting open source data to “support influence and intelligence operations.”
The database was leaked to professor Christopher Balding, an academic who lived and worked in China. He then shared his findings and the massive database built by Zhenhua Data, a company in Shenzen (the “Chinese Silicon Valley”) that has been linked to the Chinese State, intelligence and military.
On Tuesday, the Italian parliamentary security committee (COPASIR) officially asked Italy’s secret services to begin an investigation on and around the leaked database, where the names of more than 4,500 Italians cropped up, ranging from key public figures and their families to politicians, academics, managers, and even people from the world of organised crime.
The investigation was announced by COPASIR’s president Raffaele Volpi, an MP and member of the League, following cross-partisan pressure mounting in parliament, spearheaded by the Democrats Emanuele Fiano and Andrea Romano. Antonio Zennaro, an MP and member of COPASIR, had promised a quick intervention to Formiche.net on Monday, adding that “the profiling of the selected individuals and their families […] is reminiscent of a re-enactment of the Orwellian Big Brother.”
Mr Zennaro emphasised that the database “blatantly violates” European and Italian privacy regulations, and that the event is cause for “immediate reflection on the data economy and the relationship between public and private in non-democratic countries.” He also likened this to the American worries over Chinese companies such as TikTok managing the data of millions of citizens, many of which are underage.
Meanwhile, Piero Fassino, the Democratic president of the parliamentary foreign commission, has summoned Li Junhua, the Chinese ambassador to Italy. Mr Fassino wrote in a statement that the reports “called for an unequivocal and immediate clarification.”
Speaking through the Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese government, a representative from Zhenhua Data argued that the company’s activities were perfectly legal and in line with those of their Western peers, and denied reports that it collected private information such as psychological profiles.
However, on Tuesday Facebook revoked Zhenhua Data’s access to their platform, pointing out that web scraping (the practice of collecting vast amounts of data online) was against its policies. Additionally, the team behind the data leak said that there was reason to think that a part of the information may have come from other sources, including the dark web and physical persons.
“Zhenhua claims to work with, and our research supports, Chinese intelligence, military, and security agencies use the open information environment we in open liberal democracies take for granted to target individuals and institutions. Our research broadly support their claims,” wrote professor Balding on his personal blog.
The academic also noted that the database is “technically complex using very advanced language, targeting, and classification tools” and it encompassed individuals from sectors that “the Chinese State and linked enterprises are known to target.”
According to the Australian Financial Review, a page on Zhenhua’s website (which has been removed) read: “Social media can manipulate reality and weaken a country’s administrative, social, military, or economic forces”, and that such ‘hybrid warfare’ is “less expensive than traditional warfare”.
It certainly doesn’t help that Shenzen Zhenhua is believed to be owned by State-owned China Electronics Technology Group (CETC), which has ties to the military. Also, the company’s CEO Wang Xuefeng reportedly used the Chinese social app WeChat to endorse waging “hybrid warfare” through manipulation of public opinion and “psychological warfare”.
The database, which is being analysed by the Australian cybersecurity company Internet 2.0, was able to decipher roughly one-tenth of the data trove.
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