An investigation by Indian Express revealed that China, the neighboring country with whom tensions arose regarding multiple issues, including border disputes, is keeping watch on several Indian citizens. According to the report, the communist country is watching over and monitoring more than 6000 Indians accused of financial crime, terrorism, IPL betting, narcotics, and smuggling. The monitoring is being done by a Chinese firm, Zhenhua Data.
What is Zhenhua Data?
Shenzhen Zhenhua Data Information Technology Co is one of the biggest data scraping company in the world. They mainly focus on providing open-source intelligence profiling and threat intelligence services. Although the company uses publicly available data, the use of the data is a security concern to most other countries. The company has close ties and has also claimed to be working with the Chinese Government and Chinese Intelligence agencies. Their CEO has publicly supported “hybrid warfare” and “psychological warfare”.
What do they do?
The company targets and monitors individuals and institutions in politics, government, business, technology, media, and civil society. They then track the digital footprints of their targets over social media and maintain an information library on them. They track not only news sources, forums, but also from papers, patents, bidding documents, even positions of recruitment. They build a “relational database” of their targets, that describes associations between individuals, institutions, and information.
The data leak
In September 2020, a data leak in Zhenhua Data revealed that they were monitoring approximately 2.4 million people around the globe. The database was called Overseas Key Information Database (OKIDB). The data was leaked to an American academic who shared the data with Internet 2.0 which is an Australia based cybersecurity consultancy.
Thereafter, researches were conducted on the data which showed that 20% of the data was not from open source locations. Investigations made by journalists from New Zealand found that some people with no online presence were profiled in the database.
Internet 2.0 recovered data of a quarter of a million people from OKIDB, including about 52,000 Americans, 35,000 Australians, and 10,000 Britons. They also reported that more than 10,000 individuals and organizations from India were also being monitored by the Chinese firm. The list contains names of senior Indian diplomats such as Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Sanjeev Singla, policymakers such as Amitabh Kant, academics such as Romila Thapar, and sportspeople such as Sachin Tendulkar. The report also showed that several Indian thinktanks were also being monitored.
An investigation by Indian Express
The high profile names that have been revealed to be monitored by the Chinese contain personalities like Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra whose company “skylight hospitality private limited” is being probed by the Enforcement Directorate. Other names like that of Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy, who was accused of illegally denotifying a prime plot to benefit his relatives, and former Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda, who was named in a red corner notice in a money laundering case are also found in the Database.
They have also kept a close eye on financial crimes like cases of corruption, bribery, and fraud. Over 500 entities restrained for various reasons by the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) are listed by the company.
The investigation also revealed that the list includes mentions of criminals like fugitive Dawood Ibrahim, late Tiger Memon; members of Jamat-ul-Mujaheddin of Bangladesh (JMB) investigated by the NIA in the 2014 Burdwan blast case; operatives of the People’s Liberation Front of India (PLFI) held in Chhattisgarh in 2013 in connection with 28 cases of kidnapping, murder, looting, arson and extortion; and militants of Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit) arrested in Assam in 2015 with firearms and ammunition.
The Chinese also seem to monitor Indian sports like the Indian Premier League very closely. They have names of over 40 bookmakers accused of betting and spot-fixing in the Indian Premier League (IPL) and the 2015 Cricket World Cup. Recent years also saw a boost in Chinese investment in the league. Vivo, a Chinese tech company was the title sponsor of IPL in 2018. The deal cost them ₹2,199 crores for a term of 5 years. However, due to recent diplomatic issues between the two countries, Vivo chose to exit the deal. The new title sponsor, Dream 11 is also partly owned by the Chinese tech giant Tencent.
The database also focuses on areas such as trafficking narcotics, gold, and wildlife. Directorate of Revenue Intelligence has busted multiple China-based syndicates involved in smuggling gold, in the last few years. China and India are also the world’s major producers of opioids and ephedrine extracted from plants. China also has a huge market for wildlife materials that are poached and trafficked from Indian jungles. Products like red sanders (sandalwood), big cat derivatives, and ivory are always in high demand.
They even track the reports of illegal organ donations from various hospitals located in Amritsar, Delhi, Mumbai, Gurugram, and Nalgonda. India and China are the most popular destinations for people seeking organ transplants.