Zhenhua Data Information, a Shenzen-based technology company that has links with the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party, is monitoring more than 10,000 Indian individuals and organisations, among them top politicians, an investigation byThe Indian Express has revealed.
According to their report, Zhenhua Data targeted individuals and institutions belonging to politics, government, business, technology, media, and civil society. The data company claims to work with Chinese intelligence, military and security agencies.
Zhenhua Data monitors the target person’s social media platforms and maintains all the information, whether it's from news sources, or patents, bidding documents. The Chinese company keeps a record of all the associations between people and organisations, by collecting intricate data, Zhenhua poses ‘threat intelligent services,’ reported The Indian Express.
Wake Up, Opposition Tells Govt
Taking cognisance of the report, the Opposition on Monday, 14 September, asked the government for a probe on the matter, reports The Indian Express.
Terming Chinese digital surveillance on Indian leaders as ‘quite disturbing’, the Congress said that it is important to understand if there’s more to this data-collection, than meets the eye.
Congress’ Deputy leader in Rajya Sabha, Anand Sharma, said that the surveillance has enormous implications for national security.
“It is a very serious thing. We hope the government will go to the bottom of it and take appropriate action to protect data privacy of citizens. This has huge implications for national security, besides the privacy of citizens. It needs an in-depth probe and firm action.”Anand Sharma, Congress’ Deputy leader in Rajya Sabha
Gaurav Gogoi, the Congress’ deputy leader in Lok Sabha said that it is imperative for the government to strengthen its cyber security capacity as India is confronted by China “not only on land, sea and air” but in the cyberspace as well. Gogoi said that the government shouldn’t be caught napping on this crucial front.
Trinamool Congress MP Saugata Roy, who had moved an adjournment motion in parliament on Monday, but couldn’t mention it said that “this is an extremely serious matter that a Chinese agency is invading the data privacy of Indian leaders. Our government needs to raise this concern with the Chinese government.”
The Indian Express investigation revealed that Zhenhua operations have a massive log file of India database which the company calls Overseas Key Information Database (OKIDB). This database, using advanced language, targeting and classification tools. included hundreds of entries without any explicit markers.
The oversea database includes entries from countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Canada, Germany and the United Arab Emirates. The entries from these countries were obtained through a network of researchers from a source connected to the company based in Shenzhen City in Guangdong province, in south-east China, a source told The Indian Express.
Christopher Balding, a professor in Vietnam told The Indian Express that the key to monitoring the process is Zhenhua Data is called “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.”
As per the records, Zhenhua was registered as a company in April 2018 and set up 20 processing centres across countries and regions.
A Chinese Embassy source in Delhi told The Indian Express that 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.”
Who is Being Monitored?
Till now Zhenhua Data Information Technology Co Limited has reportedly monitored high-profile Indian political leaders – from President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress interim chief Sonia Gandhi to Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray, MP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, and Union ministers Rajnath Singh, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Nirmala Sitharaman, Piyush Goyal and Smriti Irani.
Among the others are Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Singh Rawat, at least 15 former Army chiefs, Navy and Airforce officers, Chief Justice of India S Bobde and Justice AM Khanwilkar as well as start-up tech entrepreneurs like Nipun Mehra, founder of Bharat Pe and Ajay Trehan of AuthBridge, an authentication technology firm and top industrialists like Ratan Tata and Gautam Adani, The Indian Express investigation revealed.
Apart from these high-profile individuals, Indian bureaucrats, judges, scientists, journalists, academicians, actors, sportspersons, religious leaders, activists are also being monitored by the Chinese based company. Even those who are accused of financial crimes, terrorism, corruption, narcotics have come under the eye of this company.
The Indian Express investigation also reveals that OKIDB also tracks the relatives and families 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)and Sonia Gandhi.
On Watch List: Ola, Flipkart & Paytm
Fresh insights into The Indian Express investigation has pointed out that the Overseas Key Information Database also has its eyes on founders, angel investors and chief technology officers of India’s most promising start-ups.
Featuring in the entry list of 1,400 such individuals are T K Kurien, the Chief Investment Officer at the Premji Invest, Chief Technology Officer of Reliance Brands PK X Thomas, Chief Executive of Reliance Retail Brian Bade, Group Chief Financial Officer of Mahindra Anish Shah.
Apart from the big wigs, heads and associates of some of the most prominent e-commerce platforms like Flipkart co-founder Binny Bansal, Deepinder Goyal, Zomato founder and CEO, Swiggy co-founder Nandan Reddy and head of Uber India’s driver operations Pavan Vaish, among others, Matrix Partners, which owns ride-hailing app Ola, health-care app Practo, Kalaari Capital, that owns Myntra, Snapdeal and Urban Ladder, Seed Fund, which has sportskeeda and RedBus.in are within its portfolio, too.
Moreover, digital education, BYJUS, Learnyst, Kenznow, Auxilo and payment apps like Paytm, Razorpay and PhonePe are on the watch list as well.
In Digital healthcare enterprises like Cipla-backed Wealthy Therapeutics, Strand Life Sciences and Gramin Healthcare, that focus on rural health services in India. In digital education, BYJUS, Learnyst, Kenznow, Auxilo are among some of apps being monitored.
The key names from the news media 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.
People from the sports and cultural fields have also come under monitoring, including Sachin Tendulkar, film director Shyam Benegal, classical dancer Sonal Mansingh, former Akal Takht Jathedar Gurbachan Singh, several bishops and Archbishops of churches and self-styled god-woman Radhe Maa (Sukhwinder Kaur).
The investigation by The Indian Express comes at a time when India and China are locked in a stand-off along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh.
(With inputs from The Indian Express.)