China is using big data science and technology to tap over 10,000 Indian individuals through “Hybrid warfare” – a strategy that shifts the focus from political, military and economic aspects to one that’s centred around technology. The targets, whose digital footprints are being watched, range from people in the Indian government, opposition parties, media to art, sports and culture.
The agency monitoring in real-time the individual or organisation through its global database of foreign targets is a Shenzen-based technology firm that calls itself a pioneer in using big data for “hybrid warfare” and the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
An investigation by The Indian Express has revealed how the agency scraps information from the web and social media platforms, tracks research papers, articles, patents and recruitment positions. It traces its links to the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party.
Zhenhua Data Information Technology Co. Limited is monitoring Indian individuals from President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Congress interim President Sonia Gandhi and their families. It is also keeping an eye on chief ministers Mamata Banerjee, Ashok Gehlot, Amarinder Singh, Uddhav Thackeray, Naveen Patnaik and Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Cabinet Ministers, including Rajnath Singh, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Nirmala Sitharaman, Smriti Irani, and Piyush Goyal as well as Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Singh Rawat along with 15 former Chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force are being monitored. Also on the list are Chief Justice of India Sharad Bobde, judge AM Khanwilkar, Lokpal Justice P C Ghose and Comptroller and Auditor General G C Murmu.
Besides this, the agency is also monitoring start-up tech entrepreneurs, including Nipun Mehra, founder of Bharat Pe (an Indian payment app), Ajay Trehan of AuthBridge, an authentication technology firm, and even top industrialists Ratan Tata and Gautam Adani.
The list includes bureaucrats in key positions as well as judges, scientists, academicians, journalists, actors, sportspersons, religious figures and activists. Hundreds of accused in financial crime, corruption, terrorism, and smuggling of narcotics, gold, arms or wildlife, are also being watched as per the report in IE.
The development assumes significance as it comes against the backdrop of a border dispute along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The company has claimed that it works with Chinese intelligence, military and security agencies. In the face of these flare-ups along the LAC, India blocked, 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”. Zhenhua, though, seems to be unaffected by these decisions, as per the report.
The Indian Express for over two months used big-data tools, investigated the metadata from Zhenhua’s operations and extracted Indian names from the massive pile of log files constituting what the company called Overseas Key Information Database (OKIDB). The OKIDB also builds family trees through establishing networks.
A company staffer declined to speak to the correspondent as the matter touched upon trade secrets. But a Chinese Embassy source in Delhi told IE “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.”
There was no clarification on whether the Chinese government and the military were clients of Zhenhua Data as claimed by the company. There was no explanation on why would the Chinese government used the OKIDB data, if it did.
“What I would like to point out is that the Chinese government has been asking Chinese companies to strictly abide by local laws and regulations when doing business overseas; this position will not change,” the Embassy source said.
The investigation by the publication has shown that OKIDB tracks the relatives of, among others, Prime Minister Modi, President Kovind, former PM Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, Smriti Irani, Harsimrat Kaur and Akhilesh Yadav.
Those who also figure on Zhenhua’s list of people being monitored are former chief ministers Raman Singh, Ashok Chavan, Siddaramaiah; leaders of political parties, the late M Karunanidhi of DMK, the late Kanshi Ram of Bahujan Samaj Party and RJD’s Lalu Prasad Yadav. The database has a strategic collection of over 250 Indian bureaucrats and diplomats, including Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla; Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant; as many as 23 former and current Chief Secretaries and over a dozen former and current police chiefs of states.
Those from the news media named in the list 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.
Key names in sports, culture and religion also feature in the list. Former cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, film director Shyam Benegal, classical dancer Sonal Mansingh, former Akal Takht Jathedar Gurbachan Singh, several bishops and Archbishops of churches, self-styled god-woman Radhe Maa (Sukhwinder Kaur); Bibi Jagir Kaur, the first woman to be elected Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee for the second time, and Hardev Singh of the Nirankari Mission, are among those being monitored.