Rotorua MP and former trade minister Todd McClay has described a profile of his mother on a secret Chinese database as "bizarre".
Todaythe NZ Herald revealed relatives and children of senior New Zealand political figures - including Jacinda Ardern and John Key - had been identified and tracked online over the past decade by a Chinese big data company with ties to that country's military.
Profiles of the sister and parents of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have been built on a secret Chinese database, along with the mother of former trade minister Todd McClay and the children of both Foreign Minister Winston Peters and former prime minister John Key.
When the Rotorua Daily Post contacted McClay for the story, it was the first he'd heard of the Chinese profiles.
"My mother ... wow," he said, and laughed.
"I don't know anything about it."
"It sounds bizarre," McClay added.
University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady, a specialist on China, said the profiles showed a concerted influence campaign from that nation targeted at political and business elites.
"Our New Zealand politicians are being targetted on a grand scale, and in minutiae," she said.
Today's revelations come from a large-scale leak from Shenzhen-based big data company Zhenhua Data, which reportedly works with China's state security and intelligence service the Ministry of State Security.
More than 250,000 listings in the company's 2.4 million-strong Overseas Key Information Database (OKIDB) - apparently constructed from open-source information - were leaked to professor Chris Balding, a United States academic who had worked in China until 2018.
The listings include town of residence, links to social media accounts and notes indicating a particular interest in job titles or criminal convictions for tax or trafficking offences.
When asked about the Chinese tracking at NZ First campaign event in Te Puke tonight, deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said privacy was a "critical component" of New Zealand society.
"It's one of the things that makes us different from other societies. It's critical to our democracy, it's critical to our whole values system and people have got to be prepared to defend privacy."
The Herald obtained the New Zealand entries in the leak and was working through the nearly 800 listings to determine their significance.
The OKIDB appears to have been more than a decade in the making and includes figures, and their family members, whose influence has long-waned. The wife of disgraced Christian Heritage leader Graham Capill is profiled, but her husband's political influence was extinguished when he was jailed for child sex offences in 2005.
The photo linked to the entry of John Key's son, a media picture of him in his early teens playing baseball, seems to have been created early in his father's first term as prime minister.
The latest entries on the leaked database appear to cease in early 2018.
Patterns seen in overseas analysis of the OKIDB leaks as a map of networks of interest - capturing influential figures in politics, business, technology, the judiciary, military and race relations, and immediate family members of these notables - are reflected in the New Zealand listings.
Particular interest seems to have been paid to prominent executives in telecommunications, biotechnology and venture capital firms, along with foreign affairs diplomatic staff focused on China.
Brady said while the information on the OKIDB appeared largely open-source, the selection of people of interest was telling.
"There are a few defence officials, and our former and present ambassadors to China. But there's also the head of the China desk at MFAT," she said.
"Data scraping is bound to happen, but somebody knows our society, and our government agencies quite intimately. You can only know who the current China desk person is if you're interacting with them as a diplomat - or you're on the inside."
Intelligence commentator Paul Buchanan said the OKIDB sourcing of large quantities of social media and other public data appeared to operate in a similar fashion to Palantir, which contracted to Five Eyes alliance Governments - including New Zealand.
Buchanan said the particular interest in family members and relatives - not typically of interest to Western intelligence agencies - likely stemmed from an attempt to build network maps and "identify vulnerabilities".
"When you start looking at families, they're looking for vulnerabilities, and they're looking for blackmail. You may never use it, but if you do enough network analysis you could find a High Court judge, for instance, who could be leveraged," he said.
At least three judges have profiles on the OKIDB.
A key defence official, who before leaving the NZDF is described in his OKIDB profile as having led New Zealand's "national geospatial intelligence team" and with "senior reporting responsibilities into NATO".
Māori Party candidates and their families from the 2014 and 2017 elections - when the possibility of the party becoming a key political kingmaker peaked - also have a strong representation in the listings.
Family members of at least two past race relations commissioners also appear to have attracted interest from Zhenhua.
- Additional reporting by Keith Ng