A China spy story? Abandon perspective all ye who enter here (The New Daily Sep 15, 2020)

Sep 16, 2020

’Twas pure coincidence that as I was writing Monday’s story on the local spook/defence/media industries having little faith in Australia but lots of self-interest in promoting Sinophobia, journalists at the ABC and Australian Financial Review were belting their keyboards over another alleged Chinese spying outrage.

China’s ‘hybrid war’: Beijing’s mass surveillance of Australia and the world for secrets and scandal” headlined the ABC.

The AFR went at it every which way, from “China’s social media warfare database lists key Australians” to providing a sample 120 names listed under the tease headline “Are you in China’s social warfare database?” – a sort of random not-particularly-Rich-List, complete with a photograph of someone from the AFR’s Young Rich List.

The irony of this in a publication big on compiling databases of people seems to have been lost.

The story boils down to a Chinese company, Zhenhua Data, combing the internet to build a database of 2.4 million people’s personal information, including some 35,000 Australians – which means it is a wee fraction of the width and depth of the Google and Facebook databases, never mind what the US National Security Agency holds.

Heavens, even the old ASIO is alleged to have opened files on more than half a million Australians.

Bernard Keane, someone known to not take the local security establishment at face value, ran a story in Crikey on the double standards on display and nailed this tweet:

Jeremy Kirk, Information Security Media Group executive editor, did apply perspective in analysing the story in his blog and posting the following on Twitter: “The China database is causing a fair amount of stir in Australia, but before we get too spun up about China-spying-targeting-etc., there are a few important points to keep in mind.

“A big one: this data was sitting on an unsecured elasticsearch cluster for ages. Hundreds of gigabytes. For anyone to download. Including me in January.

“I only have small parts of the dataset since it’s gigantic, but nothing I’ve seen so far indicates that any of it is necessarily sensitive. If you put it on social media and your privacy settings are open, well, you’ve been warned for ages that this was a bad idea.

“Zhenhua Data sold access to this information, just like many other companies that specialise in this kind of intelligence. You could subscribe then log in, as seen in the screenshot below. It wasn’t trying to hide. And it wasn’t very good at protecting its own data.

“The discovery of large amounts of aggregated data – even if it’s public data – often causes a stir. Add “China” and it gets even more frenzied.

“I understand Zhenhau uses some worrisome words such as “hybrid warfare.” Marketing puffery, if you ask me. Keep perspective.

“This doesn’t compare in any sense with what professional intelligence agencies do. Don’t panic. They couldn’t even secure an elasticsearch cluster right.”

But that doesn’t sound like much of a story when it’s an easy matter to round up the obvious local Sinophobes to harrumph and froth.

My favourite line in the coverage was: “A Five Eyes intelligence officer, who uses the pseudonym Aeneas, has pored over the data…”

Aeneas was a hero of ancient Troy. I suppose you’re meant to trust a Trojan.

Bernard Keane had another.

Funny thing is that China – like every other major country – inevitably has a rich database full of information on people who might be of interest to it. (Heck, little ol’ Australia used to bug the Indonesian President’s wife’s phone for any interesting titbits.)

But Zhenhau Data isn’t it.

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