Flat White

Why we should be worried by China’s Overseas Key Individual Database

14 September 2020

2:56 PM

14 September 2020

2:56 PM

Until recently, Australians and their governments have believed that it doesn’t matter what values are held by the nations and people with whom it deals.  

That’s understandable, given we are a free trading nation, believing in an open economy and the morality of free exchange.  If prosperity is the measure, it has served us well.  

Yet, the recent leak of China’s secret Overseas Key Individual Database — OKIDB — from a Chinese intelligence agency should shake us from our slumber.

Knowing that the Chinese Communist Party’s intelligence agencies are using a combination of complex bots, advanced big data tools, hacking and other methods to conduct mass digital surveillance of non-Chinese people located outside of the Chinese mainland, changes everything.   

The kinds of people they are spying on should also shock:  it’s not just politicians and senior academics, for instance.  There’s maintenance men, cleaners and students with no previous connection by birth, marriage or business to China.  

There are three important lessons we should take from this information.   

First, that the technological sophistication of the CCP on this front is high, and they are willing to use it anywhere and on anyone.   

Since the commencement of the 863 Program (or State High Tech Development Plan) in 1986, the CCP has, under the guise of ‘studying’ or ‘collaboration’, been stealing intellectual property from Western universities and businesses in the fields of information technology, laser technology, automation and telecommunications, among others.  It has been bringing it home to be built upon and fashioned for a range of the CCP’s purposes, from the development of software through to the manufacture of weapons systems.   

The OKIDB database shows that the CCP’s machine learning, artificial intelligence and big data mining and analysis capabilities are far more advanced than anticipated.  Think Cambridge Analytica on steroids.  

In the gradual implementation of the social credit system, in which Chinese citizens are watched using CCTV equipped with facial recognition technology, and their purchases and online life measured to determine whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ citizens, the CCP is attempting to pre-emptively shape social and political behaviour in line with what they value.   

But the CCP’s values do not match ours.   

That means the journalist who asks uncomfortable questions or the person who doesn’t pay fines imposed by its arbitrary justice system can expect restrictions, for example on their right to fly, to use nice trains, and to spend their money as they wish.  At particular risk are the people who do things that are not illegal but of which the CCP doesn’t approve, such as going to church, reading news from an overseas website or having critical views of CCP leaders.  Those who telephone such a person will get a recorded message saying the person they are calling is dishonest before that call is connected.   

Even people who don’t seek to rock the political boat are kept under the thumb, with deductions to their score for jaywalking, failing to show up at a restaurant booking or spending too much time playing video games, for example.  

Those who are sufficiently compliant, ask few questions and do what is regarded by the CCP as good behaviour, get incentives like free bicycle hire in the city and shorter hotel check-in queues.  

A similar system is being implemented for the surveillance of 33 million Chinese companies.  

While many people in the West who heard of these developments didn’t like them, most were content to say that the CCP was entitled to do as it wished within Chinese borders – subject to human rights obligations.  I have no doubt that the social credit system breaches China’s human rights obligations, but that is perhaps an argument for another day.

Knowing that the OKIDB turns the tactics of big data collection and analysis against those outside China is chilling.  It says that China’s ambitions do not lie simply in strengthening its domestic hold on power.  It has designs on the rest of the world, too. 

Legal experts warn that the Chinese National Security Law purports to cover non-Chinese citizens anywhere in the world, with offences that are made out by conduct as minor as saying things that could be considered a slight against the CCP’s leadership. The Chinese prosecution service boasts a 99.8% conviction rate, too. This isn’t merely theoretical:  non-Chinese citizens have already been targeted by this lawIt means thinking twice before speaking critically of the CCP and its actions, or accepting that visits to the Chinese mainland or transiting in Hong Kong are off-limits for the foreseeable future. When the OKIDB tells us ordinary Australians are being watched and documented, nothing less would be sensible.   

Indeed, this database is a weapon in the hands of an aggressive totalitarian government.  It can be used to silence expat communities on threat of harm to family remaining in China.  It can be used to destroy by coordinated pile-on the careers of academics, politicians, business leaders and others for outspoken criticism of the CCP, or even for holding views that, while not obviously political, nevertheless don’t fit the CCP narrative.  

Second, the OKIDB’s collection of information on people who are not especially public-facing, high profile or powerful in the traditional conception of the term, tells us a great deal about the CCP methodology.  

It tells us that the Chinese are prepared to use incentives or blackmail to achieve their aims.  The janitor of a university has the capacity to leave a door unlocked to give access to an operative who wants it.  The cleaner at a defence contractor can slip a USB into a PC without being noticed.  Data hacked or scraped by bots from the internet about an undisclosed past criminal conviction or a child who has personal struggles can be all the pressure that’s needed to extract compliance.  

Third, Australians are on the list, and in large number.  That tells us the CCP’s intelligence agencies are interested in our ideas, our research, the intellectual property in which taxpayers and shareholders invest, and intend to use it to strengthen their own position against ours.

At the time of the cold war, the US and its allies vastly exceeded the USSR bloc in population, technology and per-capita GDP.  Today, China has around two-and-a-half times the population of the US and its allies.  They’ve studied internationally, worked and stolen to close the technology gap.  It is paying dividends, and they are unlikely to stop.  

We retain a per capita GDP advantage, but recent events tell us that China is prepared to confect whatever reason it needs to achieve strategic objectives using underhanded economic means.  Does anyone really think that Australia was dumping barley and wine?  

We can sleep no more.  China has worked hard to gather the tools, and the OKIDB shows it is using them against us. This knowledge vindicates some of the difficult decisions the Federal Government has made in recent times, including on Huawei’s exclusion from delivering the 5G network. 

We need to make some hard decisions, with economic impacts that will flow throughout our domestic economy.  We are forced to do so at a difficult economic time.  We must confront the reality that our information and trade relationships are being used as weapons with which to bring us to our knees and we need instead to stand up to defend Australia’s interests.  

That means diversifying our trade relationships to deal more with nations who respect and share our fundamental values, such as honouring a deal, respecting contract law and refraining from abusing economic relationships to achieve defence or geopolitical goals.  This will give us more long-term stability in our trade relationships, and consequently, the economy.

It means rigorously considering the national interest in the sale or longterm lease of assets to foreign governments and companies aligned with or controlled by foreign governments.  It means demanding better transparency about those holdings from other jurisdictions.  That same scrutiny should be applied to individuals and companies considering investing in the commercialisation of research and defence technologies, and to visiting academics and research students.  It may be needed where there are foreign investors who control or seek to control companies in key industries across the Australian economy.

It means strengthening our security protocols for information at every level of business, academia and government, and ensuring we invest in the tools needed to respond to digital attacks – whether launched from afar or on our soil.  

It means a cultural change in the way we understand what constitutes important information, and in whose hands serious risks can lie.  

Ultimately, this comes down to a decision about the values by which we choose to live.

Do we reject the encroachment upon our sovereignty that comes from allowing a foreign government’s intelligence service to conduct mass surveillance upon Australians?  

Do we value the institutions that helped our nation rise – like the rule of law, the protection of private property, and the notion of equality before the law – enough to protect them?  

Do we value free speech, intellectual freedom, political freedom and choice?  

Do we want to live our lives as strong, free and proud Australians?

I believe Australians do.  That means we must respond firmly to this new tile in the mosaic of our understanding of the methodologies of the CCP.   

Amanda Stoker is a Liberal National Party Senator for Queensland 

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