PERSPECTIVE: China syndromeSurveillance State: Why Zhenhua Data Is Researching Irish People for the Chinese Government

Published 16 November 2020

An obscure Chinese company with close ties to the Chinese intelligence services was found to have collected detailed information on 963 influential Irish people. The Irish dataset is part of the company 2.4 million-strong database, consisting of influential people from practically every country in the world. Intelligence specialists say China’s goal is to identify potential weaknesses that could be exploited to advance China’s interests.

An obscure Chinese company compiled a dataset of 963 influential Irish people, and at first glance, the names appear to be random. John Mooney writes in The Timesthat on closer inspection, however, you can see they have been chosen carefully. There are politicians, trade unionists, scientists, tech entrepreneurs, academics, bankers, business leaders, diplomats and even high-profile criminals.

Mooney writes that the 963 are among a cache of 2.4 million profiles collected by Zhenhua Data, a firm based in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, which has close ties to China’s intelligence services and military. The dataset was leaked last year to Christopher Balding, an American academic who lived in Shenzhen and who fled to the U.S. once he realized the significance of what he had been given.

Mooney adds:

Balding subsequently shared the data with Robert Potter, the founder of Australian cyber-security firm Internet 2.0. Potter concluded the dataset had been collected using sophisticated software that “scraped” the internet for “open source” information, though some of it might have been purchased on the dark web. Internet 2.0 recovered 250,000 profiles of approximately 2.4 million people spread across nearly 200 countries which it released to academics and journalists last week.

Balding has described the dataset as a Chinese effort to understand the “human and institutional terrain” of various countries, which it is targeting to identify potential weaknesses that could be exploited. Those named on the dataset are described as “politically exposed persons” — intelligence terminology used to describe an individual with a prominent public role.

Like the Russians, Beijing’s intelligence services are thought to be active on Irish soil as they seek to influence Irish policy on international trade and relations, the EU and the United Nations. The most serious threat, according to security sources, is China’s attempt to steal new technologies and intellectual property (IP) being developed in Ireland, with a view to transferring it illegally to Beijing through hacking, theft or coercion.

Chinese espionage is conducted by both its security services and private companies, some of which are obliged to co-operate with the regime.

“The key pillar of intelligence work in China, and elsewhere, is the collection of information to create dossiers on people of interest,” Rodney Faraon, a former CIA analyst who now works with the US geopolitical advisory firm Martin+Crumpton, told Mooney. “People create policy, invent new technologies, and influence public opinion. What may not seem useful today may be useful tomorrow, so knowing all you can about individuals is critical.

“It may provide a sense of a person’s interests, vices, vulnerabilities and relationships. Remember, the purpose of intelligence is to create some kind of advantage, whether it’s in business, technology or decision-making.”