China may be using Zhenhua database to target, exploit Taiwanese: scholar

09/22/2020 08:28 PM
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CNA file photo for illustrative purpose
CNA file photo for illustrative purpose

Washington, Sept. 21 (CNA) There is a possibility that China is using information from a massive database of influential figures to identify individuals and institutions in Taiwan that could be exploited, according to American researcher Christopher Balding.

The database, which was compiled by the China-based tech firm Zhenhua Data Information Technology Co., purportedly contains the personal information of some 2.4 million politicians, academics and military officials around the world.

Since a Zhenhua Data employee leaked the database to Balding in 2019, the American researcher has been working with the cybersecurity firm Internet 2.0 to recover and analyze the information, Balding said last week, when he released his findings for the first time to several media outlets internationally.

So far, Balding and the Australia-based firm have recovered 10 percent of the data, which includes the personal information of 52,000 Americans, 35,000 Australians and nearly 10,000 British citizens, according to a report on Voice of America.

The data also contains information on 2,900 Taiwanese nationals, including former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), and Sophie Chang (張淑芬), the wife of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) founder Morris Chang (張忠謀), Radio Free Asia has reported.

Former President Ma Ying-jeou (left) and James Soong of the People First Party. Both of these politicians
Former President Ma Ying-jeou (left) and James Soong of the People First Party. Both of these politicians' information was included in the database/ CNA file photo

Around 80 percent of the information on the database is estimated to be from open sources such as social media platforms and news reports, but some of it appears to have been hacked or stolen from private sources, Balding told media outlets last week.

In an interview with CNA on Monday, Balding said that based on the information recovered so far, it seemed there was "significant human interaction" in determining who was included in the database.

Politicians, professors and tech leaders were heavily represented, which shows that the database is not just a random collection of people, but "a very well-selected group of influential individuals from specific sectors," he said.

This indicates that Zhenhua, which is based in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, could have been given a list of names or classifications of people to track, although it is unclear whether that was on the instruction of the Chinese government, said Balding, who had previously worked in Shenzhen.

He said that based on information obtained about Zhenhua, its partners and clients, "we feel very, very confident" that the company is working with the Chinese military and government intelligence agencies.

As for the purpose of the Zhenhua database, Balding said it seemed like an effort to understand the "human and institutional terrain" of various countries. With that understanding, China can identify potential weaknesses that they can exploit, he added.

In the case of Taiwan, there is a "distinct possibility" that the Chinese government is using the database to draw up a list of university professors or tech employees as targets in an influence attempt or intelligence operation, Balding said.

Academics and students sit in a lecture hall at a university in southern Taiwan/ CNA file photo for illustrative purposes
Academics and students sit in a lecture hall at a university in southern Taiwan/ CNA file photo for illustrative purposes

For instance, Beijing could use the database to find a tech firm in Taiwan that has valuable technology and hack it, or offer the firm money to set up a plant in China so the government there could have access to the technology, he said.

He advised that people in Taiwan try to protect their personal information by setting their social media profiles to private and avoid disclosing their location via their mobile phones.

People who work in sensitive areas should also be careful about the information they post on social media, Balding said.

"I was stunned at the number of individuals around the world that openly bragged on LinkedIn of having top secret clearance" in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere, he said.

This sort of behavior "makes you an absolute target for China," said Balding, who disclosed that he was advised by American government officials to leave Vietnam, where he had been working recently as a university professor, and return to the U.S., out of safety concerns.

On the question of whether he still feared for his safety despite his return to the U.S., Balding said he had made "a very conscious decision" to not live in fear of what Beijing might do to him.

"China wants to scare you, and they try to intimidate you," he said. "And it's up to you whether or not you let them."

(By Stacy Hsu and Chiang Yi-ching)

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