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India vs China: What is Hybrid Warfare and Why is China Building a Global Database of "Foreign Targets"?

Sep 15, 2020 11:50 AM 4 min read

The world seems to be turning against China. One country after another. 

A swelling chorus of voices around the globe has asked the Chinese Government to pay up for the damages incurred due to the deadly pandemic, amidst claims that the COVID-19 virus was made in a lab in Wuhan. 

Back home, the ongoing border tensions between India and China show no signs of subsiding.

And amidst this chaos, The Indian Express has released an investigation, which suggests that China might be up to something bigger, something that could potentially alter power dynamics across the globe.

The original database was leaked to American academic Christopher Balding, previously based in Shenzhen but now back in the US due to “security concerns”. 

Mr. Balding reportedly shared the data with Internet 2.0, an Australian cybersecurity consultancy for recovery and analysis.



The Revelation

As per the scoop, Zhenhua Data Information Technology Co. - a Shenzen-based technology company with links to the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party, is monitoring millions of people across the global - from India to the US, the UK, Japan, Australia, Canada, Germany and the UAE - as part of its global database of “foreign targets”. 

The database is so overwhelming that an intelligence analyst referred to it as "Cambridge Analytica on steroids".

The expansive list, a part of what the company calls Overseas Key Information Database (OKIDB), includes names of individuals and institutions across Governments, politics, bureaucracy, sports, business, technology, media, religious institutions and civil society. 

In India, the company has been targeting over 10,000 individuals and organisations. 


PM Narendra Modi


Some prominent names in the list include President Ram Nath Kovind, PM Narendra Modi, former PM Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, key Union Ministers and Chief Ministers, the current and former Chiefs of the armed forces, the Chief Justice of India. 

Business tycoons like Ratan Tata and Gautam Adani. Senior journalists such as Rajdeep Sardesai, Sudhir Chaudhary. Sports personalities like Sachin Tendulkar. 

Several Bishops and Archbishops of churches, self-styled god-woman Radhe Maa, Bibi Jagir Kaur, the first woman to be elected Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee for the second time, Hardev Singh of the Nirankari Mission and their close kith and kin.

In addition, records of allegedly 250,000 people including 52,000 Americans, 35,000 Australians and nearly 10,000 British citizens comprise the dataset. 

Zhenhua engages in what it refers to as person information and relationship mining, that is, tracing networks among individuals, institutions and organisations, and changes in their leadership positions. 

This is based on information from multiple sources including scraping information from the web and social media platforms, tracking research papers, articles, patents, recruitment positions - practically any or all digital footprints.  

The revelation holds immense significance in the backdrop of ongoing negotiations between India and Beijing to curb tensions along the Line of Actual Control in the Ladakh region, and can potentially flare up the situation. 


“Shenzhen Panopticon”

The Chinese Government has time and again been accused of using its technological prowess to pry on sensitive data and posing national security threats.  

Countries such as US, UK, Vietnam, New Zealand and Norway banning Chinese telecom giant Huawei and disallowing it to participate in their 5G infrastructure and India banning nearly 117 Chinese apps were all born out of this accusation. 

While the Chinese Government has always brushed aside such allegations, the latest revelations have a different story to tell. 

Zhenhua Data Information Technology, the company behind the database, calls itself a pioneer in using big data for “hybrid warfare” and the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.


What is Hybrid Warfare and Why is it a Cause for Concern?

Hybrid warfare, alternatively called “grey zone” essentially refers to the use of non-military tools to achieve dominance or damage, subvert or influence. In Zhenhua Data’s own words, these tools include, “information pollution, perception management and propaganda.”

A recent study by the US Center for Strategic and International Studies defined the main tools of hybrid warfare as:


Disinformation and Misinformation Operations

CSIS noted, "competitors have honed their abilities to manipulate and weaponize information to wield power, gain influence, and counter allied narratives".

Dr Zac Rogers, who is research leader at the Jeff Bleich Centre for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security and Governance, said deeply personal and granular information about individuals is scattered freely across the internet.


“When agglomerated, this data opens up myriad opportunities to conduct targeted influence activities should the need arise … This can include dis and mis-information, inauthentic simulation (deep fakes), straight-up bribery, and general muddying of the information environment in which democracy operates.”


Political and Economic Coercion

While Russia is accused of using political coercion through election interference, China has been accused of using the "debt trap" diplomacy in countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative to "shape their policies toward Chinese benefit and interests".


Cyber and Space Operations

CSIS said, "Russia, China, and Iran have been actively launching major cyberattacks against allied and partner interests over the past decade, with targets ranging from banks and businesses to academic institutions and government agencies. Hybrid space operations include actions such as jamming GPS signals and transmitting fake GPS signals..."


Proxies and State-Controlled Forces

CSIS quoted the example of China's use of "civilian" fishing boats operating in contested waters of the South China Sea for the use of proxy actors to conduct coercive operations "below the threshold of all-out war".

With repercussions as wide-ranging as the above, and the kind of data that the Chinese government is believed to possess, the fear of a potential digital war looms large. Preparing for one, if it were to occur, and more importantly averting such a catastrophe would be key.


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