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2020.10.16 13:57

Chinese company collected data on Lithuanian officials and their families – LRT Investigation

Mindaugas Aušra, LRT Investigation Team, LRT.lt2020.10.16 13:57

Information on around 500 Lithuanians was included in the database compiled by the open-source intelligence company Zhenhua Data Information Technology linked to the Chinese government and armed forces.

The Zhenhua files data leak revealed that the big data scraping company based in the south of China collected personal information on millions of foreigners. Christopher Balding, an American professor, was the first one to receive the leaked data set with around 2,5 million names. He sent the information to the Australian cybersecurity company Internet 2.0 that recovered part of the data and shared it with international media outlets, including LRT.

LRT Investigation Team found information on 498 Lithuanians, including politicians, diplomats, army and Church representatives, businesspeople, lawyers, police officers, and journalists, in the data set.

But Internet 2.0 managed to recreate only around 10 percent of the information collected by the Chinese firm, as the rest was severely damaged. It is thus likely that the foreign company had data on even more Lithuanians.

Most of the collected information was publicly available on social networks, news outlets, and websites of the Central Electoral Commission, the parliament Seimas, as well as ministries.

Read more: Chinese data firms tracks people in Baltics who may be 'friendly to Beijing'

Most data on politicians' relatives

164 family members of decisionmakers
92
MPs, cabinet ministers, municipal politicians
54
heads and employees of government agencies and state-owned companies
33
businesspeople
32
diplomats and Foreign Ministry employees
22
security agenst and military personnel

The Lithuania data set consisted mostly of information on relatives of state officials. It included spouses, children, parents, grandparents, nieces, and nephews of Lithuanian parliament members, diplomats, ministers, and other state officials.

Every person’s profile included his or her date of birth, address, family status, occupation, political connections, as well as other information and pictures taken from social media.

The data showed that the Chinese started collecting information on Lithuanians in 2000 and most actively filled the file in 2017 and 2018. The last update was in June 2020.

According to Algirdas Šešelgis, vice minister at the Health Ministry who appeared on the data set, he did not know about the Chinese firm that collected personal information and why it was interested in him.

“I have never been influential. […] Maybe it is because this is not my first term as vice minister,” Šešelgis wondered.

The vice minister added that he had little contact with Chinese diplomats. He first met the country’s ambassador in Lithuania at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and “mostly talked about the virus”.

Strategic areas

Zhenhua was also interested in government-owned firms and key Lithuanian businesses. It collected information on strategic objects, such as Lithuanian Railways, the Port of Klaipėda, Lithuanian Post, airports, and energy companies, as well as their employees.

The business areas that the Chinese focused most on included fintech, investment and agriculture companies, as well as retail and wholesale firms. The most mentioned firms were BIOK Laboratory, BaltCap, Synergy Finance, Traffi, Credit Info, Lietuvos Draudimas, and Kesko Senukai.

The data set also included information on people related to state security. A detailed employment chronology concerned the Financial Crime Investigation Service (FNTT) and the Special Investigation Service (STT). Other security officials, such as army and police officers and state border guards, were also mentioned.

Nor did the Chinese firm neglect the cultural sector. It collected information on Lithuanian gallery managers, composers, directors, journalists, as well as Church representatives.

According to the journalist Aurimas Perednis from Žinių Radijas (News Radio), he did not expect to be of interest to the Chinese.

“It is strange that China cares to collect information on me. On the other hand, data is the new gold. I also talk about Chinese politics in my shows. I even invited a Chinese embassy representative to discuss the question of Tibet,” Perednis said.

Although most of the data collected by Zhenhua was publicly available, experts warned that it could be used to directly pressure people that it concerns.

“If you know what somebody’s child or grandchild is doing, you can hint in a conversation that you know everything about a person and pressure him or her to provide more information. Public data is part of hybrid war,” Marius Pareščius, a cybersecurity specialist, said.

The purpose of the database was not entirely clear. The Zhenhua website that has now been removed said that it provided “services for military, security and foreign propaganda”. The company denied any direct links to the Chinese government saying that its goal was to “integrate” public information on the internet and connect people to their social networks.

LRT Investigation Team has approached the Chinese Embassy in Lithuania for an interview and is still working out the conditions.