Shenzhen-based company Zhenhua Data amassed files on over 40,000 people including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Chief of Defense Staff Gen. Sir Nick Carter, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, Prince William and Kate Middleton. Members of giant U.K. companies and academics in various British universities working on artificial intelligence, software and computer technology were also included in the surveillance effort.
A separate section contained social media posts with keywords about British military and politics.
All data collected from these personalities – including names, birth dates, social media posts, professional histories and more – were said to be in a secure database located in China.
Documents about Zhenhua Data’s harvesting of personal information, alongside the key to the database, were stolen by an anti-China activist early in 2020. These where shared to the Five Eyes intelligence network, comprised of intelligence agencies from the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Zhenhua Data was established in 2017 by a former IBM engineer. According to its now-deleted website, the company provided services for “military, security and foreign propaganda” and “human-oriented threat intelligence services.” A company representative refused to comment on allegations of espionage, saying that it was “not convenient to disclose” information.
A Chinese government spokesman also denied accusations that Beijing ordered Zhenhua Data to monitor British high-profile figures. He reiterated that China “has not asked, and will not ask, companies or individuals to collect or provide data, information and intelligence stored within other countries’ territories.”
In a Sep. 13 piece for The Telegraph, British Member of Parliament (MP) Bob Seely referred to Zhenhua Data’s harvesting of personal information from people worldwide as a “wake-up call.” He commented that China is using big data and artificial intelligence to create a surveillance state model and export that model to the rest of the world. (Related: Big Tech propping up China’s police state surveillance system.)
The Tory MP also warned that China does not create databases to know when to send birthday cards, but rather to find human vulnerabilities to exploit. “If data and information are power, that is what China is building,” he added.
Professor Christopher Balding of the London-based Henry Jackson Society called the Zhenhua database “just the tip of the iceberg,” adding that China is “systematically scrutinizing” people in the West as potential intelligence targets. He warned influential individuals and those related to them that “the Chinese government is keeping tabs on them.”
The Zhenhua Data breach does not only serve as a wake-up call for the British.
Some other countries were included in Zhenhua’s harvesting efforts such as the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, Malaysia and India. A Fox News report pointed out that the Chinese company has been collecting information from prominent Americans and U.S. military officials since 2017. Meanwhile, a report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation mentioned that Zhenhua data on Australia focused on the country’s space and science sectors.
The files from Zhenhua also included information on politicians around the world that stood against Chinese interests.
British MP Tom Tugendhat, who disagreed with integrating components from Chinese technology company Huawei into the UK’s 5G network, was among the politicians monitored by Zhenhua. Australian Sen. Jenny McAllister and her husband were also listed in the Zhenhua database. Sen. McAllister headed a Senate inquiry into foreign countries’ interference through social media.
Both politicians expressed concern with Chinese surveillance.
MP Tugendhat said that the Chinese government “is seeking to get increasingly involved in politics abroad" and private companies in China are utilized to gather information leading to this goal.” Sen. McAllister meanwhile said that the discovery of the database “should serve as a warning” for governments to act.
Find out more news about China’s surveillance on other countries at Surveillance.news.