What data China collected about 35,000 Aussies—and 2.4 million people globally

Zhenhua Data defends “research”—but concerns mount over what Australia has discovered about Chinese gathering of personal data.

Data viewed secretively with binoculars.
Marco Piunti / Getty Images

The domestic surveillance operations of the Chinese government are well documented, but the scope of the country’s interest in overseas citizens has become clearer as privacy watchers pore over the details of some of the more than 2.4 million overseas organisations and people of interest—including at least 35,000 Australians—collected by a Chinese data-harvesting firm with links to the country’s government.

Personal details of politicians, singers, judges, entrepreneurs and other high-profile Australians—including their dates of birth, address, criminal records, relatives, and political associations—have been collated and stored in a database by Chinese data firm Zhenhua Data that, the ABC reports, has links to the governing Chinese Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army.

Canberra-based firm Internet 2.0 attracted worldwide attention after obtaining a leaked version of the database that included about 250,000 entries, of which some 35,558 related to Australian figures of interest. The data also includes information of about 52,000 Americans, 10,000 Britons, 5,000 Canadians, 1,400 Malaysians, and 793 New Zealanders—as well as politicians and administrators in India, with which China is currently engaged in an ongoing and sometimes-violent border dispute along the Line of Actual Control.

The implications of what the Chinese database collected about foreigners

Zhenhua Data representatives rebutted claims they had engaged in politically motivated spying, saying the data—stored in a database called the Overseas Key Information Database (OKIDB)—was “research” that was simply collated using publicly available sources on the internet, as has long been done by people-finding firms that collate birth, death, tax and other records to profile individuals and their movements over time.

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