- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 20, 2020

A Chinese technology company surveilled the social media profiles of tens of thousands of Americans, including information on their physical location and professional and personal relationships.

The Shenzhen Zhenhua Data company’s Overseas Key Information Database collected data on prominent politicians such as President Trump and Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden, leading businesspersons such as Jean Pritzker, and more than 100,000 other American residents, according to Christopher Balding, an American researcher, and Internet 2.0, an Australian cybersecurity firm.

Mr. Balding and David Robinson, Internet 2.0 co-founder and a former Australian military officer, shared an incomplete portion of the database as they mine it for clues on what was collected and why. Mr. Balding, who left a teaching position in Vietnam earlier this year, had researched Huawei before a source provided him with access to the Shenzhen Zhenhua database that he has shared with journalists, governments and think tanks around the world in recent months.

“It’s clearly not just a collection of random individuals from a country,” Mr. Balding said. “There’s clearly parameters and groups of people that compose these groups of individuals within the database.”

He said he is not sure whether the people developing the database were given a list of names to monitor or if they set parameters according to certain characteristics that returned various groups of people.

Whereas multiple members of Mr. Trump’s family are included in the database, Mr. Balding noted that the database may have focused more on professional relationships for private sector individuals than on personal relationships. For example, mid-to-senior level employees at larger technology companies and the CEOs of smaller technology companies were included.

“Of military personnel, it absolutely runs the gamut from very senior leadership down to the lowest enlisted man,” Mr. Balding said. “They are clearly doing geotracking of military units, and especially naval ships and stuff like that.”

The information collected by the Chinese technology company was used to “support Chinese intelligence, military, security, and state operations in information warfare and influence targeting,” according to a paper published by Mr. Balding and Robert Potter, co-founder of Internet 2.0.

The Chinese government disputed that it had anything to do with Shenzhen Zhenhua, after it was pressed by Indian media about its collection on Indian nationals.

“What I want to stress is that Zhenhua is a private company and has no links to the Chinese government,” said a spokesperson for the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of India in a statement last month. “There are many foreign companies engaged in such similar business.”

A website for the Shenzhen Zhenhua company was taken down after Indian news outlets approached the company for comment, according to The Indian Express.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center declined to comment on the Shenzhen Zhenua database.

Whether foreign companies engaging in monitoring Americans’ social media profiles have broken any laws is a matter of public debate. Facebook recently sued companies engaged in data collection unrelated to Shenzhen Zhenhua that could better reveal the boundaries of what is permissible.

On Thursday, Facebook said it filed a new complaint in federal court in California against two companies engaged in a digital data harvesting operation that scraped Facebook platforms in violation of the company’s terms of service. Facebook alleged that the data harvesting violated state and federal law and previously sued the companies earlier this month.

Scraping involves data collection using automated web tools to extract data from a website or app. The outcome of Facebook’s litigation could have a widespread effect on companies that scrape websites.

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