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GOT MY EYES ON YOU

A tech firm with ties to Beijing is reportedly monitoring over 10,000 Indians, including Modi

Students wear masks of China's President Xi Jinping as other waves national flags of India and China, ahead of the informal summit with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at a school in Chennai
P. Ravikumar
Always watching.
Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

A Chinese company with links to Beijing has mined detailed personal information of more than 10,000 Indians, including government officials, prominent politicians, and industrialists, an investigation by The Indian Express newspaper has revealed.

Shenzhen-based Zhenhua Data Information Technology, which reportedly calls itself a pioneer in using big data for “hybrid warfare”—non-military warfare comprising of the political, economic, and technological—has compiled a global database of “foreign targets” using information from the web and social media platforms, research papers, articles, patents, and more, The Indian Express said in a report today (Sept. 14).

The targets in India reportedly include president Ram Nath Kovind, prime minister Narendra Modi, Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi, chief of defence staff Bipin Rawat, and at least 60 senior serving and retired officers of the military, The Indian Express said. The list also includes state chief and cabinet ministers, mayors, sarpanches (village council heads), and legislators, at least 1,350 politicians and lawmakers are on the list.

Top scientists across apex bodies for nuclear power, atomic energy, and space research were on the radar, too. As were industrialists Ratan Tata and Gautam Adani, startup entrepreneurs Nipun Mehra (founder of fintech app BharatPe), bureaucrats, judges, academicians, journalists, actors, sportspersons, religious figures, and activists. “And even hundreds accused of financial crime, corruption, terrorism, and smuggling of narcotics, gold, arms or wildlife,” The Indian Express added.

This revelation comes amid simmering border tensions at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China. In June, at least 20 Indian soldiers were reportedly killed in a clash in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley. Since then, the two countries have been locked in a standoff—not just at the border, but even on the trade front.

On June 29, the Modi government banned 59 Chinese apps, including the wildly popular video-streaming platform TikTok. On Sept. 2, the Modi government banned another 118 mobile applications, this time including gaming app PUBG, which had 15 million daily active users in India.

Besides the digital economy, traders of grains and textiles, among other things, are seeing their businesses suffer. India has also barred Chinese firms from investing in highway and other key infrastructure projects.

As per several news reports, India wasn’t Zhenhuan’s only target. The Chinese technology firm, which counts the Chinese government and military among its clients, reportedly harvested the data of over 2.4 million people across India, the US, the UK, Australia Japan, Canada, Germany and the UAE.

“The world is only at the beginning stages of understanding how much China invests in intelligence and influence operations using the type of raw data we have to understand their targets,” Christopher Balding, a Vietnam-based professor who previously taught at the HSBC Business School of Peking University Graduate School and was first made privy to this database, wrote in a Sept. 14 blogpost.

Before it was taken down on Sept. 9, a page on Zhenhua’s website stated that social media could be used as a propaganda weapon to weaken other states, Yahoo! News reported.

Digital rights activist Nikhil Pahwa believes that Indian Express is “making too much of this data collection.” In a series of tweets, he pointed out that while it is worrisome because it can lead to targeted disinformation campaigns, honeypot traps, blackmail, and more, this tracking activity itself is not illegal.

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