How many well-wishers of the government are critical of the way it has handled the economy, or perhaps the manner in which it reacts to critics? So even though most Indians would side with the government when it comes to China, perhaps it is possible to, through these persons, create a narrative that banning Chinese apps or keeping Chinese vendors out of critical Indian projects will end up hurting the economy? That, in a nutshell, is what China is hoping to achieve, eventually, through its attempt to monitor what over ten thousand important Indians—from prime minister Narendra Modi to Zomato founder Deepinder Goyal—are saying on social media, in newspaper articles, in position papers they are writing, causes they are espousing, charities they are working with, concerns they are expressing, etc. Most nations spend decades trying to profile influencers in various countries, but as The Indian Express (IE) has been reporting over the last few days, China has taken this—like most things Chinese—to a scale few could have imagined.
A Shenzen-based IT firm Zhenhua Data Information Technology Company—IE says it has links with the Chinese government and communist party—is scraping data from social media, newspaper articles, seminar papers, etc, to create a ‘relational database’ to track what thousands of influencers are saying, how others are reacting to this, etc. This helps the company create what it calls a ‘hybrid warfare’ strategy since, once there is such a database that helps China identify potential stress points and whom to use to target these fissures, it can then possibly even run disinformation campaigns in India. Though the comparison hasn’t been made, Zhenhua’s work is, on a much larger scale, what Cambridge Analytica did using data from Facebook during the US elections. Cambridge tried to create profiles of voters who were most susceptible to being influenced, and in the swing districts that mattered the most, and then set about sending them certain kind of messaging. If Zhenhua’s database is as comprehensive as planned, China can hope to not just focus on changing perceptions during elections, but on the most important issues.
One of the various stories IE has carried on this mentions Zhenhua collecting “even private information about movements such as geographic location”, but for the most part much of what the Chinese firm is collecting may be public information; so there may not be much that can really be objected to from the point of view of privacy. What makes it worrying is the industrial scale of the collection of information and the patterns/insights that may emerge once this is parsed using various analytical tools including artificial intelligence; what is worrying is that it is not even clear what kind of data a Zhenhua—are there others doing the same thing?—has. Writing in The Washington Post, its China correspondent Gerry Shih recalls that in 2018, a fitness-tracking app revealed the locations of various US bases overseas! And, in 2015, Shih points out, the Chinese government issued a strategy paper on big data and, the same year, an essay in a world affairs journal of the communist party “suggested that China could conduct automated Web scraping or legally purchase proprietary databases as its governmental and commercial dealings expand”. Spying operations focus on obtaining top-secret data, but there is a lot to be gleaned from Facebook posts, LinkedIn profiles, Instagram pictures.
How India reacts to Zhenhua remains to be seen, as the implications of the stories haven’t fully sunk in as yet. Apart from the obvious condemnation of Zhenhua, and the possibility of India trying to do the same thing to China—even if not at the same scale—it is clear there will be domestic implications. If a Zhenhua-type operation—and this assumes the Chinese government will be using the database/services—makes it easier for the Chinese to influence, or even distort, the narrative in India, the Indian government will need to find a counter-strategy that is equally well-crafted. Not all those opposing the official line on China have been manipulated, but the government has to find ways to counter China’s propaganda.