The profiles of over 2.4 million people have been collated by a Chinese company with links to military and intelligent networks. Among them, the profiles of 35,000 Australians, including politicians, entrepreneurs, and public figures — profiles which include dates of birth, addresses, marital status, along with photographs, political associations, relatives and social media IDs.
Cambridge Analytics on steroids
When it comes to national security, writes Bruce Baer Arnold, Assistant Professor in the School of Law at the University of Canberra, it’s a bit like a sausage factory: you may like the end product, but you probably wouldn’t be comfortable knowing how it’s made. Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men may be a villain, but his famous “You can’t handle the truth” speech is not devoid of truth.
In the modern age, a lot about national security revolves about data — especially internet data. So while the news that foreign companies are gathering all sorts of private data might be shocking to most people, it wouldn’t really be a surprise to experts in the field.
Here’s what happened: the Shenzhen company Zhenhua Data, which has the People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese Communist Party among its main clients and is widely believed to be used by China’s intelligence service, created a database of 2.4 million people. A recent report by Privacy Australia shows that Aussies are particularly affected by the leaked data, which includes notable figures: a supreme court judge, a federal foreign affairs minister, and a tech billionaire. It’s a leak that’s been described as ‘Cambridge Analytica on steroids‘, an allusion to the 2016 data scandal.
The database collates social media profiles, as well as news stories, criminal records, even corporate misdemeanours. Presumably, the profiles in the database have some connection to China and/or are people of interest, but we don’t know anything about Zhenhua’s goals or targets. In fact, what little we do know comes from a leak to a US academic who understandably fled China in 2018, fearing for his safety.
It’s easy and justified to condemn China for this type of act, but it’s not just China that’s doing this. Pervasive surveillance has now become a standard of all major governments. Governments in the West buy services from big data analytic companies such as Palantir and without a doubt, there are other such companies we haven’t even heard of yet that are working to this purpose. Governments track their own citizens, and they also track the citizens of other countries as well. This year alone, cybercriminals accessed Australian government data on 200,000 people, an act which was perfectly avoidable.
This type of attack on privacy won’t stop anytime soon. The sausage factories like the Zhenhua type of company and are unlikely to stop supporting them, but that doesn’t mean we’re powerless.
What you can do
The first thing to do is to be aware of this practice. Whether it’s social media, various websites, or governments, you should always be mindful of how you use your data online. Most people have this in the back of their heads but still are still careless at times.
The second thing is to be more demanding of our governments — both when it comes to their own surveillance and that of other actors. Companies like Google and Facebook want to know everything about us, and governments want the same thing, they’re just not as proficient at it. Reaching out to government agencies to require stricter legislation (especially asking companies to better protect their databases) is an important first step, and a good platform to build on as most leaks happen via third party databases.
From there, we can start discussing about further law reform and a right to privacy. The problem is that technology can evolve much faster than legislation, which means that any legislation must be robust and well-planned from the start.
In addition, companies don’t have a direct incentive to do this, and neither do governments — which means that change must come from us, consumers. It’s time-consuming, difficult, but it’s probably the only avenue for change.