A Chinese Database Is Tracking American Nuclear Scientists and Military Officers

Caroline Delbert
·3 min read
Photo credit: George Rinhart - Getty Images
Photo credit: George Rinhart - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

An Australian financial newspaper has uncovered a database of more than 2 million scientists and subject matters kept by the Chinese government. The Overseas Key Individuals Database (OKIDB) includes many thousands of nuclear and other strategic industry experts, their personal information, and even where their relatives live. The Australian Financial Review (AFR) says the invasive-sounding list was still “mainly gleaned from open sources,” raising questions about the nature of public information.

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The OKIDB acts as a kind of international phone book, from research scientists to the people at the cutting edge of international diplomacy. The Washington Post reports:

Those digital crumbs, along with millions of other scraps of social media and online data, have been systematically collected since 2017 by a small Chinese company called Shenzhen Zhenhua Data Technology for the stated purpose of providing intelligence to Chinese military, government and commercial clients, according to a copy of the database that was left unsecured on the Internet and retrieved by an Australian cybersecurity consultancy.

OKIDB ... purports to offer insights into foreign political, military and business figures, details about countries’ infrastructure and military deployments, and public opinion analysis. The database contains information on more than 2 million people, including at least 50,000 Americans and tens of thousands of people who hold prominent public positions, according to Zhenhua’s marketing documents and a review of a portion of the database.

AFR says one key exposure point for this information has been LinkedIn, where many people list key terms about their work, even if the work itself is sensitive or secret. “Such disclosures appear equally common for those who served on U.S. nuclear submarines,” AFR reports. “Christopher Turoski is tagged for his time on the USS Georgia, an Ohio-class submarine, and for directing complex reactor plant maintenance. The database notes his current job running a nuclear power plant in Florida.”

In a way, it sounds like China is just doing what employers also do now: scrubbing resume-type information for keywords using an algorithm. Then, China triangulates that data with another massive loophole in government worker information. AFR explains:

The Washington Post, which was given access to a version of the Zhenhua database along with the Financial Review, has reported that US Navy vessels like the USS Dwight Eisenhower and super carrier the USS Nimitz were tagged with ID numbers on the database, against which social media posts were logged.”

The locations of ships in particular are logged publicly, the same way aircraft are monitored. That means a group of smart people could easily plot ship locations against public posts on Twitter or Facebook that include location information. They could even, like a game of Battleship, use the posts with locations to decide where a more secretive ship is. And the same idea could help them backform the likely locations of research facilities and more.

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There’s a common idea in software engineering and security that the users are the greatest liability of any given secure system. Especially now that people carry powerful computers in their pockets, this seems like it was just a matter of time. Indeed, AFR explains, the response from international governments has been more like keen note-taking and fear of missing out. AFR also says China’s open source findings are boosted by materials scrubbed by “Beijing's army of cyber hackers.”

The company behind the database lists explicit goals to offer misinformation services and social media influence. It’s easy to see such a blatant example and identify it as an encroachment, but social media firms around the world offer “reputation services,” and celebrities share sponsored material they don’t always identify. The lines are blurrier than ever—China is just making it official.

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