The Zhenhua Data Scandal Is Child’s Play

Our domestic spying programs make the Chinese look like amateurs

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Mainstream western media outlets are suddenly concerned about mass surveillance, because it appears to have affected some politicians and royals.

Cry me a river.

Stories are breaking from the likes of The Financial Review and The Telegraph, informing us of the horror of 2.4 million people being compiled into a Chinese database. The company accused, Zhenhua, which has links to the Chinese military and intelligence networks, has said that ‘This report is seriously untrue’. Regardless of whether it’s true or not, the fact is that we have much, much, bigger surveillance problems in our own backyard.

Anne-Marie Brady, a ‘China researcher’ from the University of Canterbury has claimed that ‘What is unusual about this discovery is the use of big data and outsourcing to a private company’. Actually, if you look at the nature of domestic surveillance in the West, that’s the modus operandi.

Samantha Hoffman, an analyst from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Cyber Centre claimed that whilst Western ‘Big Tech companies collect a lot of data’, ‘There’s a difference between what they are doing and what Chinese companies who claim to be directly contributing to state security are doing’. People like Hoffman want to maintain the illusion that China is committing some kind of evil that is totally alien to the civilised world in the west. The uncomfortable truth is that Western governments force big tech and telecommunications companies to hand over our metadata. Oh, and then this data is shared with foreign intelligence communities and private corporations.

The Australian government can simply demand data from any telecommunications or tech company. They don’t even need a warrant. They just need the green light from a senior police officer or a government official. Between 2015 and 2016, 63 Australian enforcement agencies were granted over 300,000 authorisations for access to private citizens’ metadata.

This is just a small part of the insidious Western surveillance network. In 2013 Edward Snowden revealed Five Eyes to the world. The intelligence communities of the USA, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are pooling all of their citizens’ metadata. As part of the deal, Australia’s Signals Directorate were granted access to the NSA’s XKeyScore system.

Edward Snowden described the terrifying powers of XKeyScore: ‘You could read anyone’s email in the world, anybody you’ve got an email address for. Any website: You can watch traffic to and from it. Any computer that an individual sits at: You can watch it. Any laptop that you’re tracking: you can follow it as it moves from place to place throughout the world…I can track your real name, I can track associations with your friends and I can build what’s called a fingerprint, which is network activity unique to you, which means anywhere you go in the world, anywhere you try to sort of hide your online presence, your identity.’

With insane powers like this, and access to the entire populations of the Five Eyes countries, the surveillance apparatus of a western nation like Australia dwarfs the operations of a company like Zhenhua.

When Australian intelligence pours its own people’s metadata into the NSA database, they are also making it available to private companies. In Millie Weaver’s ShadowGate documentary, whistleblowers Patrick Bergy and Tore reveal that the NSA’s database is streamed onto private servers which are accessible to current and former officials from GCHQ, CIA, MI5, MI6 and German Intelligence — amongst others. These people run private corporations such as Global Strategies Group, who are, to this day, ‘collecting everybody’s data and privatising it’.

The data on the Zhenhua database was assembled ‘mostly from open source data like social media profiles’. This is shared with the Chinese State.

On the other hand, the Australian government can ‘listen to whatever emails they want, whatever telephone calls, browsing histories, Microsoft Word documents’. This metadata is then shared with all of the Five Eyes foreign intelligence agencies and private companies from all over the world.

Labor’s Kristina Keneally says that ‘The threat of foreign interference in the capacity to amass big datasets of a population is real — and we’ve got to take that very seriously’. Yes, we certainly do.

The best way for the Australian government to stop foreign powers amassing databases on Australian citizens, would be to stop giving Australian citizens’ metadata to foreign intelligence communities and private companies.

Samantha Hoffman can fear monger all she wants about the big bad commies, wailing that China is ‘engaging in global bulk data collection’ for the ‘Military, propaganda or security’. The reality is that the Australian government, like many other western nations, is hoarding the data of its own citizens to do exactly that. They are also trading off their own citizens’ data to foreign powers and private companies for them to use however they wish.

Spare me the geopolitical theatrics, you either care about privacy or you don’t.


I mainly cover Big Tech, surveillance culture and civil liberties

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