Chinese tech firm compiles database on tens of thousands of British figures

Tony Diver
A profile of Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, is among those currently stored on a Chinese server - Toby Melville/Reuters
A profile of Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, is among those currently stored on a Chinese server - Toby Melville/Reuters

A Chinese technology company has compiled a database on tens of thousands of British figures and their children and families for the use of the country's intelligence agencies, The Telegraph can reveal.

Files on senior UK politicians – including Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister – royals, religious leaders, military officers and their families are currently stored on a Chinese server as part of a massive worldwide intelligence collection operation by a private company that describes its mission as "the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation".

The data includes names, dates of birth, educational history, professional biographies, criminal convictions, social media accounts and other information scraped from the internet by computer software. Information about British businesspeople and academics, and the movements of UK and US naval ships, is also up for sale.  

Millions of people in the United States, Canada, India and Japan are named in the files, alongside an estimated 40,000 Britons.

Zhenhua Data (see panel below), the company that created the files, claims to provide "services for military, security and foreign propaganda" and "human-oriented threat intelligence services", and to have sold its database to security clients in China.

Another index of the database uses hundreds of thousands of tweets and Facebook posts containing key words related to the military or British politics to build an intelligence picture of the UK.

The full contents of the Zhenhua servers are understood to have been stolen earlier this year by an anti-China activist, who shared them with the Five Eyes intelligence network of the UK, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The database was then shared with media organisations including The Telegraph.

The Zhenhua files name dozens of British cabinet ministers, peers and Members of Parliament (see the graphic below for the full list of names). They include information about the family of Tom Tugendhat, a Tory MP fiercely critical of Beijing and the integration of Huawei components into the UK's 5G network.

Senior MPs called for the Government to be wary of China's interference in UK society and electronic surveillance of British citizens.

Mr Tugendhat has already expressed concerns that he is under surveillance by Chinese intelligence and said the data leak showed an "important change" in the country's approach.

"This is a further indication that their interest in UK politics has gone beyond the general and into the specific," he told The Telegraph. "What's clear is that the Chinese government is seeking to get increasingly involved in politics abroad.

"Many of us know, through direct targeting in a crude way, that attempts to influence the UK have gone beyond what was normal a few years ago, and this seems to indicate that private companies in China are being used as part of a wider information-gathering effort.

"This is an indication that they are now seeing the West, and particularly the United Kingdom, as the kind of sphere of influence in which they wish to have this level of granular detail."

The existence of the database raises new questions about Chinese electronic surveillance and suggests a collaboration between the Communist leadership and a variety of private companies in an attempt to build an intelligence picture of the UK.

The discovery comes at a time of intense strain between the British and Chinese Governments over new security laws in Hong Kong and the cancellation of Huawei's involvement in the UK's 5G network.

The cancellation of Huawei's involvement in the UK's 5G network has been a source of strain between the UK and China - Dado Ruvic/Reuters
The cancellation of Huawei's involvement in the UK's 5G network has been a source of strain between the UK and China - Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Among the thousands of British citizens on the database are Amber Rudd's daughter, the journalist Flora Gill, and the families of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Ephraim Mirvis, the Chief Rabbi.

Darius Guppy, a controversial friend of Mr Johnson from his Oxford University days, is listed in the database as the Prime Minister's "close associate".

The files contain a family tree of British royals and a list of their hobbies and interests. Prince Charles is described as a "writer, polo player, entrepreneur, painter, helicopter pilot, children's writer [and] aristocrat", while Princess Anne is listed as an "event rider".

Another index in the database contains profiles of thousands of UK civilians who have been convicted of fraud, drug and terror offences or disqualified from their jobs as directors of UK companies.

The information is thought to have been "scraped" from newspaper archives, social media posts and other online registers before being re-packaged for use by military intelligence.

Since The Telegraph contacted Zhenhua Data for comment, its website appears to have been deleted. 

A representative of the company refused to comment on allegations that it was engaged in state espionage, saying: "Sorry, these questions touch upon our trade secrets. It's not convenient to disclose."

A spokesman for the Chinese government would not comment on the connection between its intelligence agencies and Zhenhua Data.

The spokesman said: "China has not asked, and will not ask, companies or individuals to collect or provide data, information and intelligence stored within other countries' territories for the Chinese government by installing 'backdoors' or by violating local laws."

But security experts familiar with the data said the information would appear to "match the capabilities of the Ministry of State Security", the Chinese equivalent of MI6.

An intelligence source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "The database is frightening for the breadth of individuals covered, as well as their backgrounds.  

"It represents a global mass surveillance system on an unprecedented scale. It also differs from the intelligence gathering practices of Western nations in that it deliberately collects on people whom we would consider 'civilians' and not normally subject to collection even in foreign countries.

"It is clear that Zhenhua and the entities named on its website as 'partners' are not merely contractors to the Ministry of State Security and the People's Liberation Army, but are in fact intrinsic parts of the broader state security and intelligence apparatus of the People's Republic of China."

Writing in The Telegraph, Bob Seely, the Tory backbencher who leads Parliament's Huawei Interest Group, said: "China does not build databases on us, legally or not, for benign reasons or to know when to send birthday cards.

Bob Seely said: 'China does not build databases on us, legally or not, for benign reasons'
Bob Seely said: 'China does not build databases on us, legally or not, for benign reasons'

"It does this to find human vulnerabilities to exploit. If data and information are power, that is what China is building.

"The Telegraph's powerful story of data gathering on millions of people worldwide and thousands in the UK is a wake-up call."

Professor Christopher Balding, an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, said: "This database is just the tip of the iceberg, but it shows that China is systematically scrutinising millions in the West as potential intelligence targets.  

"Anyone of influence in the UK, or closely related to them, should know that the Chinese government is keeping tabs on them.

"UK data suppliers also need to be much more careful in their business dealings with Chinese-linked firms – it is clear China's Big Data dystopia is using Western data to effect its agenda."