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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a campaign stop in Timaru on Tuesday. She would not comment on the Zhenhua database, which profiled her family members, but said issues of cybersecurity were met with “constant vigilance”.
Politicians and their families, diplomats, academics, business executives, fraudsters, judges and a sportswoman are among New Zealanders profiled in a massive Chinese intelligence database.
Stuff has gained access to the “Overseas Key Individuals Database”, which is claimed to include personal details of more than 2 million people across the world, and was collated by a Chinese data intelligence company which has been linked to Beijing’s state intelligence apparatus.
The sweeping data collection of, primarily, publicly available information includes more than 730 New Zealanders and is part of a broader effort described by an intelligence official as “a global mass surveillance system on an unprecedented scale” that could be used for political influence campaigns.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s mother Laurell, father Ross and sister Louise, Cabinet ministers, former prime minister Sir John Key’s son Max, and sportswoman Barbara Kendall have all attracted the interest of the Chinese firm, called Zhenhua Data.
Former prime minister John Key pictured with his son Max Key, who was named in the Zhenhua database, which included a dated photo of him pulled from a Stuff article.
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Ardern, speaking to Stuff during a campaign stop on Tuesday, said she would not comment on security matters, or answer questions on her own family members being on the list.
“I don’t make a habit of commenting on issues around security matters … We need to make sure that whether it’s issues of cybersecurity, issues of foreign interference, we need to make sure we have constant vigilance.”
The New Zealanders targeted for data collection range from people convicted of fraud and drug crimes to high-profile Māori leaders such as Dame Naida Glavish, business leaders such as former finance minister Ruth Richardson, and high-ranking Wellington bureaucrats including Chief Censor David Shanks.
Those on the list were given the labels “politically exposed person” or “relatives or close associate”. Many on the list have a current public profile, others have ended their public careers as much as a decade ago. No private information appears to have been collected, and many profiled in the list are simply named, with little more detail.
Stuff has been contacting the New Zealanders profiled in the database. Zhenhua Data has not responded to a request for comment, nor has the Chinese Embassy.
Zhenhua Data describes itself as an open source data intelligence focussed on “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.
Articles from the company’s website, now taken down from the Internet, talk about conducting “hybrid warfare” and using social media to spread rumour and influence public opinion.
Zhenhua claims to have started in September 2017, and was seeking various employees including customer sales reps to sell services to “party, government and military”, and a writer that could “grasp all the information of the propaganda object”.
The database seen by Stuff equates to roughly 10 per cent of the total database the company had collated. It was leaked to American academic Associate Professor Chris Balding, an expert on China, who then passed the material to Canberra-based cybersecurity firm Internet 2.0.
The influential figures across the world targetted in the database made international headlines on Monday, thanks to a consortium of journalists including reporters from the Australian Financial Review, the Washington Post, the Indian Express, the Globe and Mail in Canada, and Il Foglio in Italy.
Olympian Barbara Kendall, who is on the International Olympic Committee, was profiled in a database compiled by a Chinese data firm called Zhenhua.
Internet 2.0 co-founder Robert Potter told Stuff Zhenhua Data had claimed to have profiles on 2.4 million people in its system, however much of the database was corrupted and irretrievable when obtained his company.
Potter said both China’s offensive intelligence capability, such as hacking, and collection operations are done by third party contractors, which work on behalf of the government.
“In this case, there are a whole range of companies that Zhenhua claims to be partnered with, all of those companies are reasonably prominent in the intelligence and military contracting space in China.”
He said the New Zealand list was “quite small”, although only part of the database had been revealed.
“The collection within New Zealand appeared to be nowhere near as well-targetted as in other countries. In Australia, they seem to have spent a bit of time making sure they get a lot of really interesting people in there.
Waitemata DHB chief advisor and Māori Party candidate Dame Naida Glavish was included as a person of interest in a database maintained by a Chinese intelligence firm.
Potter said most countries would not invest in efforts to create such massive databases, but such data could be used to try influence countries – such as occurred in the Cambridge Analytical data leak, and with Russian interference in the 2016 US election.
“If you can profile the human terrain of a country, and identify who the influencers are, you can have a disproportionate impact on the opinion in the country,” he said.
Potter said though the information in the database was largely found in the public domain, people should not be “fatalistic” about it been collected for intelligence purposes.
“When you share something with Facebook, you share that with Facebook. You haven’t necessarily agreed to share that with a third party person who’s scraping that Facebook data.”
Chief Censor David Shanks is among senior public servants who appear on a database maintained by a Chinese intelligence firm.
Internet 2.0 received an intelligence assessment of Zhenhua and its database from an intelligence operative from one of the Five Eyes countries – Potter wouldn’t say which country – who said Zhenhua was clearly an “intrinsic” part of the broader Chinese state security apparatus.
The operative, in comments provided to Stuff, used the pseudonym “Aeneas” and said the database was frightening for the wide range of people covered.
“It deliberately collects on people whom we would consider ‘civilians’ and not normally subject to collection even in foreign countries,” he said.
Balding, in a statement about the leak published on his website, said the data leak proved the intelligence gathering activities China was believed to be engaged in, for the first time.
“What cannot be underestimated is the breadth and depth of the Chinese surveillance state and its extension around the world,” he said.