The personal information of hundreds of New Zealanders collected by a subsidiary of a Chinese military state-owned-enterprisewould have required detailed knowledge of New Zealand's political landscape.
The dataset is a window into the grand scale of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Government's global efforts to build relationships among political and economic elites, as well as the criminal world.
Zhenhua's Overseas Key Information Database (OKIDB) dataset contains over 2.4 million names and personal information about elites in the United States, Australia, Oceania, and Europe.
The dataset was discovered by researcher Christopher Balding. It has been pieced together with the help of cyber-security company Internet 2.0 and a team of international researchers, including myself. Only 10 per cent of the dataset was recoverable. Making sense of the dataset of each country is like putting together a massive jigsaw puzzle.
Some 793 New Zealanders are listed in an index as "politically-exposed people", along with their relatives or close associates.
This is not the full figure of New Zealanders within the dataset, as not all the profiles were able to be fully restored. For example, my own name has 23 entries within the dataset, but does not appear on that index.
The New Zealand index also features "special interest persons" (SIP) who are individuals convicted of serious crimes such as trafficking and financial offences.
Politically-exposed people (PEP) is a term used in financial regulation to describe someone with a prominent public role. Due to their position and political influence, PEPs, as well as their family members and associates, present a higher risk for potential participation in corruption or bribery.
CCP intelligence agencies have historically used blackmail and other forms of coercion to develop relationships with prominent individuals.SIPs may be more susceptible to cooperating with foreign intelligence organisations for money. CCP intelligence operations have always cooperated with secret societies, triads, and criminal gangs.
The CCP compiles dossiers on foreigners who live in China for any period of time. China's Ministry of State Security (MSS) has long gathered country-by-country information on foreign economic and political elites. MSS are especially interested as to whether or not foreign elites are politically "friendly" or hostile to China.
What is unusual about this discovery is the use of big data and outsourcing to a company, albeit one connected to the state. The revelations draws attention to recent cyber thefts of medical and public employee information in countries like NZ and the US, which have been linked back to China.
Private information available on health files could be used by the CCP government to blackmail prominent individuals. It could also be used to establish a profile on people in Wellington who have a security clearance to determine their personal habits, health weaknesses, home addresses and phone numbers.
China's Government has the world's greatest number of personnel engaged in intelligence-gathering, counter-intelligence and espionage. The intelligence agencies follow a very broad approach to covert activities, one that makes extensive use of assets, disinformation, 'useful idiots' and proxies. This makes counter-intelligence very challenging.
CCP espionage may use the cover of journalism, academia, business, "study tours" abroad, as well as think tank partnerships, city-to-city "friendship" links, and proxy diaspora organisations. China's National Intelligence Law requires Chinese citizens and companies, as well as foreigners and foreign companies operating in China, to provide access, cooperation, and support for China's intelligence-gathering activities.
Reading through the information in Zhenhua dataset, it is truly shocking to see the extent to which our political core, as well as their family members, are being targeted by the CCP, along with serious criminals. The goal, in my view, is elite capture and societal fracture.
New Zealand, like many states, is now facing up to the impact of CCP covert activities on the integrity of our political system, and in the process, making a correction in relations with China. A top priority is to update legislation on electoral financing, set up protocols around conflicts of interest for central and local government, and overhaul our out-of-date China strategy. Solving the China puzzle will be one of the greatest challenges of this era.
Professor Anne-Marie Brady is a specialist on China's domestic and foreign policyat the University of Canterbury.