Calling itself a pioneer in using big data for “hybrid warfare” and the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” a Shenzen-based technology company with links to the Chinese government, and the Chinese Communist Party, is monitoring over 10,000 Indian individuals and organisations in its global database of “foreign targets,” an investigation by The Indian Express has revealed.
The range of targets in India identified and monitored in real time by Zhenhua Data Information Technology Co. Limited is sweeping — in both breadth and depth.
From President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Congress interim President Sonia Gandhi and their families; Chief Ministers Mamata Banerjee, Ashok Gehlot and Amarinder Singh to Uddhav Thackeray, Naveen Patnaik and Shivraj Singh Chouhan; Cabinet Ministers Rajnath Singh and Ravi Shankar Prasad to Nirmala Sitharaman, Smriti Irani, and Piyush Goyal; Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Singh Rawat to at least 15 former Chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force; Chief Justice of India Sharad Bobde and brother judge AM Khanwilkar to Lokpal Justice P C Ghose and Comptroller and Auditor General G C Murmu; start-up tech entrepreneurs like Nipun Mehra, founder of Bharat Pe (an Indian payment app), and Ajay Trehan of AuthBridge, an authentication technology firm, to top industrialists Ratan Tata and Gautam Adani.
Not just influential individuals in the political and official establishment, Indians being monitored cut across disciplines. They include bureaucrats in key positions; judges; scientists and academicians; journalists; actors and sportspersons; religious figures and activists. And even hundreds accused of financial crime, corruption, terrorism, and smuggling of narcotics, gold, arms or wildlife.
This assumes significance when an increasingly assertive China is locked in a simmering standoff with India along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh and is pushing against many of its neighbours in the region and beyond. Indeed, Zhenhua claims it works with Chinese intelligence, military and security agencies.
Over two months, The Indian Express, using big-data tools, investigated the meta data from Zhenhua’s operations to extract Indian entities from the massive dump of log files that constituted what the company called Overseas Key Information Database (OKIDB). This database, using advanced language, targeting and classification tools. included hundreds of entries without any explicit markers.
It has entries from United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Canada, Germany and the United Arab Emirates, was obtained through a network of researchers from a source connected to the company based in Shenzhen City in Guangdong province, south-east China.
Citing “risk and safety,” the source did not wish to be named.
Working through a professor in Vietnam, Christopher Balding, who has taught in Shenzhen, the source shared data with news organisations that include The Indian Express, The Australian Financial Review, Italy’s Il Foglio and The Daily Telegraph, London.
Key to the monitoring process is Zhenhua Data’s avowed goal of mining data to push what it calls “hybrid warfare” — using non-military tools to achieve dominance or damage, subvert or influence. These tools include, in its own words, “information pollution, perception management and propaganda.”
Records show that Zhenhua was registered as a company in April 2018 and set up 20 processing centres across countries and regions. It counts the Chinese government and military among its clients.
A detailed questionnaire sent to the email ids mentioned in the company’s website http://www.china-revival.com on September 1 has not elicited any response. In fact, the company took down its website on September 9, and it is no longer accessible.
When a correspondent visited the Shenzhen headquarters of Zhenhua Data and presented a list of questions which included those from The Indian Express, a company staffer, who declined to offer her name, said: “Sorry, these questions touch upon our trade secrets. It’s not convenient to disclose.”
But responding to questions from The Indian Express, a Chinese Embassy source in Delhi said, “China has not asked and will not ask companies or individuals to collect or provide data, information and intelligence stored within other countries’ territories for the Chinese government by installing “backdoors” or by violating local laws.”
The source, however, did not answer specific queries if the Chinese government and the military were clients of Zhenhua Data as claimed by the company, or to what purpose the Chinese government used the OKIDB data, if it did.
“What I would like to point out is that the Chinese government has been asking Chinese companies to strictly abide by local laws and regulations when doing business overseas; this position will not change,” the Embassy source said.
Scraping information from the web and social media platforms, tracking research papers, articles, patents, recruitment positions, Zhenhua’s monitoring services map what it calls person information and relationship mining – networks among individuals, institutions and organisations, and changes in their leadership positions based on information from multiple sources.
No wonder then that OKIDB also builds family trees.
The Indian Express investigation has shown that OKIDB tracks the relatives of, among others, Prime Minister Modi (wife Jashodaben); President Kovind (wife Savita Kovind); former PM Manmohan Singh (wife Gursharan Kaur and their daughters Upinder, Daman, Amrit); Sonia Gandhi (husband, the late Rajiv, son Rahul Gandhi, daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra); Smriti Irani (husband Zubin Irani); Harsimrat Kaur (husband Sukhbir Singh Badal, brother Bikram Singh Majithia and father Satyajit Singh Majithia); Akhilesh Yadav (father Mulayam, wife Dimple, father-in-law R C Rawat, uncles Shivpal Singh and Ram Gopal).
On Zhenhua’s list of those being monitored are former chief ministers Raman Singh, Ashok Chavan and Siddaramaiah; leaders of political parties, the late M Karunanidhi of DMK, the late Kanshi Ram of Bahujan Samaj Party and RJD’s Lalu Prasad Yadav. The database has a strategic collection of over 250 Indian bureaucrats and diplomats, including Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla; Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant; as many as 23 former and current Chief Secretaries and over a dozen former and current police chiefs of states.
Those from the news media named in the list include: N Ravi, who was last week named The Hindu Group chairman; Zee News Editor-in-Chief Sudhir Chaudhary; India Today Group Consulting Editor Rajdeep Sardesai; former media advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office Sanjaya Baru; and The Indian Express Chief Editor Raj Kamal Jha.
Key names in sports, culture and religion also figure in the list. Former cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, film director Shyam Benegal, classical dancer Sonal Mansingh, former Akal Takht Jathedar Gurbachan Singh, several bishops and Archbishops of churches, self-styled god-woman Radhe Maa (Sukhwinder Kaur); Bibi Jagir Kaur, the first woman to be elected Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee for the second time, and Hardev Singh of the Nirankari Mission, are being monitored.
“Every country does this in one way or the other, that’s the job of foreign intelligence. But using big data science and technology, Beijing has, clearly, taken it to the next level,” said Robert Potter, a Canberra-based cyber security, tech and data expert, who worked with the source to verify the electronic antecedents of the Zhenhua data set.
“Just looking at the range of people they are getting information on shows that they are very serious about the strategic value of hybrid warfare. These are their information assets and tracking them on a continuous basis, their work, their families, their movements, their leadership roles, their organisations is invaluable data that can be leveraged in countless ways,” Potter said.