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China firm harvests data of 35,000 Aussies: Here’s what happened

Jessica Yun
·3-min read
Zhenhua data is based in Shenzhen, China. (Source: Getty)
Zhenhua data is based in Shenzhen, China. (Source: Getty)

A Chinese tech firm is harvesting data of more than 2.4 million people around the world, including over 35,000 Australians who are politicians, businesspeople, tech leaders, journalists and more.

The database by Shenzhen firm Zhenhua Data contains information including birth dates, addresses, marital status, photographs, political associations, relatives, criminal records, news articles and corporate misdemeanors.

Zhenhua’s database, which was leaked to a consortium of global media outlets including the AFR and the ABC, also retains social profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and TikTok.

Zhenhua Data, which is said to have links to Chinese military and intelligence networks, has People's Liberation Army and the Chinese Communist Party as some of its main clients.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Atlassian co-founders Mike Cannon-Brookes, Scott Farquhar are among the 35,558 who have had their data compiled by Zhenhua, as well as business leaders David Gonski and Jennifer Westacott.

Other names include former foreign minister Bob Carr, former Labor MP Emma Husar, former ambassador to China Geoff Raby, and former Tasmanian Premier Tony Rundle.

One Nation co-founder David Oldfield and National Party president Larry Anthony are also on the list, as well as the son of former treasurer Peter Costello, Sebastian.

Journalists on the list are ABC director Georgie Somerset and News Corp journalist Ellen Whinnett.

Singer Natalie Imbruglia also features on the list.

Of the 35,000 Australians on the database, 656 were named as ‘special interest’ or ‘politically exposed’. However, many have diverse backgrounds – some are Australians with a criminal past – and it’s unclear why some are named.

The database also includes 51,000 Americans, 10,000 Indians, 10,000 British nationals, including the royal family, and 5,000 Canadians, the AFR reported.

Zhenhua’s website was taken down after questions were put to the company.

Before it was taken down, a page on Zhenhua’s website stated that social media could be used as a propaganda weapon to weaken other states.

"Social media can manipulate reality and weaken a country’s administrative, social, military, or economic forces," the company stated as reported by the AFR. This could lead to "internal conflicts, social polarisation, and radicalism in a country".

This is described by Zhenhua as “hybrid warfare”, which it says is “less expensive than traditional warfare”.

The huge database was first leaked to Christopher Balding, a Chinese economy expert and professor who spent nine years at the HSBC Business School of Peking University Graduate School from China’s Shenzhen, where Zhenhua Data is based.

The database was subsequently reconstructed by cyber security consulting firm Internet 2.0 and shared with the AFR and ABC along with a number of other international news outlets.

Balding described the database as “akin to discovering the Holy Grail” for China researchers.

“This data provides proof of activities that China was believed to engage in, but for the first-time, data confirmed these activities,” he wrote in a blog post.

“Even Chinese “experts” continue to radically underestimate the investment in monitoring and surveillance tools dedicated to controlling and influencing, not just its domestic citizens and institutions, but assets outside of China.”

The database demonstrates that the depth and the breadth of Chinese surveillance could not be underestimated, he added.

“The world is only at the beginning stages of understand[ing] how much China invests in intelligence and influence operations using the type of raw data we have to understand their targets.”

“Hopefully, this provides some small evidence to [China’s] objectives and that we in open liberal democracies begin taking them seriously.”

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