At the behest of the Ministry of State Security, China’s equivalent to the CIA or Britain’s MI6, Shenzhen-based tech company Zhenhua Data harvested data on high profile members of the British establishment, as well as their family members and close friends.
The list of figures in the UK that were swept up in the Chinese dragnet includes Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, and members of the Royal Family, including Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, and the Dukes of Cambridge and Sussex, Prince William and Kate Middleton.
documents seen by The Telegraph, Zhenhua Data amassed files on over 40,000 people in the UK. The data is now reportedly being stored in a secure server within the Chinese state.
The documents were reportedly stolen by an anti-China activist, who shared the key to the database with the Five Eyes security network of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.
Members of some of the largest companies in the UK, including BP, Barclays, British Gas, AstraZeneca, Unilever, GlaxoSmithKline, KPMG, British American Tobacco, and Tesco were also found on the database.
Academics working on Artificial Intelligence, software, and computer technology at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Durham, and Imperial College London were listed in the database as well.
The report follows a similar
expose on Zhenhua Data’s data collection on 50,000 American citizens, including members of the United States military. The report estimated that some 2 million people worldwide were caught up in the Chinese surveillance scheme.
The data collected includes the names, date of birth, social media posts, criminal records, professional histories and other information gleaned from the internet on the British figures as well as on those connected to the high-profile individuals.
Another section within the database includes hundreds of thousands of posts on social media that have key-words referencing the military and British politics, in order to craft a complex understanding of the political and security landscape in the United Kingdom.
Zhenhua Data’s website, which has since been deleted said that it provided “services for military, security and foreign propaganda” as well as “human-oriented threat intelligence services” for intelligence agencies under the umbrella of the Chinese Communist Party.
A British intelligence source told the paper: “It represents a global mass surveillance system on an unprecedented scale. It also differs from the intelligence-gathering practices of Western nations in that it deliberately collects on people whom we would consider ‘civilians’ and not normally subject to collection even in foreign countries.”
“It is clear that Zhenhua and the entities named on its website as ‘partners’ are not merely contractors to the Ministry of State Security and the People’s Liberation Army, but are in fact intrinsic parts of the broader state security and intelligence apparatus of the People’s Republic of China,” the intelligence source added.
Conservative MP and frequent critic of the regime in Beijing, Bob Seely — who was also
listed in the database — said: “China does not build databases on us, legally or not, for benign reasons or to know when to send birthday cards.”
“It does this to find human vulnerabilities to exploit. If data and information are power, that is what China is building,” Seely warned.
A CCP spokesman refused to comment on the Chinese government’s relationship with Zhenhua Data, saying: “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.”
The revelations come amidst an ongoing row between the UK and China over the issue of Chinese telecom giant, Huawei, and its involvement in Britain’s 5G networks. Huawei has consistently maintained that it is a private company and therefore does not share data with the communist leadership, however, by Chinese state law all tech companies must share information with the government if requested.
The firm, which has been described as the “
effectively state-owned” was due to build 35 per cent of Britain’s 5G network. However, after pressure from the U.S., who warned the UK that the company has “ backdoor” access into British systems, Prime Minister Boris Johnson signalled that the company would be phased out of the UK by 2023.
Follow Kurt Zindulka on Twitter at @KurtZindulka