- Early this month, the Chinese-only website of Zhenhua Data Information Technology Co, the company monitoring foreign targets, was pulled down.
What does Zhenhua Data do?
- It targets individuals and institutions in politics, government, business, technology, media, and civil society.
- Claiming to work with Chinese intelligence, military and security agencies, Zhenhua monitors the subject’s digital footprint across social media platforms, maintains an “information library,” which includes content not just from news sources, forums, but also from papers, patents, bidding documents, even positions of recruitment.
- Significantly, it builds a “relational database”, which records and describes associations between individuals, institutions, and information.
- Collecting such massive data and weaving in public or sentiment analysis around these targets, Zhenhua offers “threat intelligence services.”
- It is not data per se but the range and the use to which it may be put to that raises red flags.
- Domestic security agencies use such data for law and order applications such as tracking protests but in the hands of foreign agencies with no supervision or oversight, such data can serve a range of purposes.
- Seemingly innocuous granular information may be put together in a broader framework for deliberate tactical manoeuvring.
- That’s at the heart of what Zhenhua itself flaunts as its role in “hybrid warfare.”
So, what’s hybrid warfare?
- As early as 1999, Unrestricted Warfare, a publication by China’s People’s Liberation Army, mapped the contours of hybrid warfare, a shift in the arena of violence from military to political, economic and technological.
- The new weapons in this war, were those “closely linked to the lives of the common people.”
- And one morning “people will awake to discover with surprise that quite a few gentle and kind things have begun to have offensive and lethal characteristics.”
- Indeed, within countries too, political parties target the opposition via these same tools.
What’s the concern over Zhinhua’s monitoring?
- As flare-ups intensified along the Line of Actual Control, India blocked, incrementally since June, over 100 Chinese apps for engaging in activities “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order”.
- But such moves are unlikely to impact an operation like Zhenhua’s.
- There have been a string of recent reports on China’s attempts to cultivate potential assets for sensitive military, intelligence or economic information in the US and Europe through social media.