A small Chinese firm known as Shenzhen Zhenhua Data Technology has been systematically collecting personal data and crawling social media posts since 2017 for the stated purpose of providing intelligence to Chinese military, government and commercial clients, “according to a copy of the database that was left unsecured on the Internet and retrieved by an Australian cybersecurity consultancy,” reports The Washington Post.
The data gathered includes “Biographies and service records of aircraft carrier captains and up-and-coming officers in the U.S. Navy,” “real-time tweets originating from overseas U.S. military installations,” family charts of foreign leaders, including relatives and children, and social media chatter about China in Washington, Gerry Shih reports at WaPo:
The cache, called the Overseas Key Information Database, or OKIDB, purports to offer insights into foreign political, military and business figures, details about countries’ infrastructure and military deployments, and public opinion analysis. The database contains information on more than 2 million people, including at least 50,000 Americans and tens of thousands of people who hold prominent public positions, according to Zhenhua’s marketing documents and a review of a portion of the database.
Although there is no evidence showing that the OKIDB software is currently being used by the Chinese government, Zhenhua’s marketing and recruiting documents characterize the company as a patriotic firm, with the military as its primary target customer.
U.S. experts who have reviewed the database offer conflicting assessments of its value. Swaths of the database appear to be raw information copied wholesale from U.S. providers such as Factiva, LexisNexis and LinkedIn and contain little human analysis or finished intelligence products. Much of the social media trove appears to be scraped from public accounts accessible to anyone.
(…) But the database, combined with Zhenhua’s digital trail — marketing materials, patents and employees’ resumes — provides a small window into the firm’s ambitions, if not actual capabilities, to glean insights by aggregating and analyzing publicly available, or open-source, data. The potential power of big data has been a long-standing concern for privacy advocates and governments alike, and its use is not exclusive to China. Large-scale open-source collection is undertaken by U.S. government agencies and American companies — the source of much of Zhenhua’s data.
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