PNG people in leaked Chinese database seek answers

10:58 pm on 7 October 2020

Papua New Guineans are questioning why their names are included in a leaked database of personal information compiled by a Chinese company.

Last month it emerged that a database of information on 2.4 million people had been leaked from the Shenzhen-based company Zhenhua Data Information Technology, which China researchers say has Chinese defence and intelligence services as its clients.

The former governor of Eastern Highlands province, Julie Soso.

Former Eastern Highlands Governor, Julie Soso Photo: RNZ/Daniela Maoate-Cox

Among the dataset - which researchers who recovered the lists say comprises only ten percent of the whole dataset - are 138 Papua New Guineans. Having found out in recent days that they are on the list, many of them now seek an understanding of why they are monitored without prior knowledge.

Most of the people on the list are what are described as "politically exposed people," denoting individuals with a prominent public role.

Julie Soso, who was the governor of PNG's Eastern Highlands province from 2012 until 2017, said she was surprised to learn that her name was in the dataset compiled two years ago.

"Why wasn't I made aware of they're going to keep me in their data?" she asked.

"Our security and safety is also important to us too. So as individuals, they should let us know why they are going to keep us in their database."

The data lists also include references to "special interest persons" where a criminal background may be noted.

But some people on the list are simply relatives of politically influential figures. Joyce Tsiamalili, whose brother recently ran for the presidency of PNG's autonomous region of Bougainville, admitted she was shocked to learn her name featured.

"I don't know what they want. But if they consider me to be spying on, well I think there must be something they want from me. They're using me, through me, to get to my other family members, my prominent family members, I guess," she said.

Papua New Guinea's prime minister James Marape (right) meeting with China's Ambassador, Xue Bing, in Port Moresby. 6 August, 2019

Papua New Guinea's prime minister James Marape (right) meeting with China's Ambassador, Xue Bing, in Port Moresby. 6 August, 2019 Photo: PNG PM Media

When news of the leak blew up last month, Zhenhua told media outlets that the information compiled in the datase was public and could be accessed by anyone on the internet.

A representative of the tech company said the Overseas Key Information Database was merely data integration rather than data collecion, accessing people via the type of social media platform they use, and using that information for research. The representative also denied the link to China's government and military, saying Zhenhua is a private company.

Minister to talk with Chinese Ambassador

However for those Papua New Guineans listed in the dataset, finding out about this has been an unpleasant experience which makes them suspicious.

The Communications and Information Technology Minister, Timothy Masiu, admitted he felt unhappy to discover his own name on the list, saying it confirmed his fears about spying.

"It's actually real and it's happening, some one is spying on you. For me, morally, it's wrong."

Still, Masiu said there was more to the data-compiling activities than what the leak showed.

"I will present to cabinet an information paper on what we found out. There is a lot more things that (are) happening, and I will be meeting with the Chinese ambassador some time this week, as per his request, and see what they have to say. But I know they will deny it."

PNG Communications Minister and Bougainville South MP, Timothy Masiu

PNG Communications Minister and Bougainville South MP, Timothy Masiu Photo: Tim Masiu

China's ambassador in PNG Xue Bing said he spoke to Masiu about the issue in Buka last week during the inauguration of Bougainville's new president, Ishmael Toroama, also confirming that they would try to meet again this week.

Xue said he had already explained Beijing's position, conveying the comments of a spokesman from China's Foreign Ministry.

"Zhenhua is a private company, and its clients are research institutions and business groups. Instead of collecting data, it only integrates data which is open and available online. I'd like to stress that as a staunch defender of cyber security, China opposes and fights all cyber crimes. We would like to enhance dialogue and cooperation with other countries to jointly build a peaceful, secure, open and cooperative cyber space."

But there are Papua New Guineans on the list who have no active presence online - after all, PNG is a country where internet access is far from universal. This suggests an active network of contacts in the country.

Creative coding lines on blurry server room background. Programming and hardware concept. Double exposure

Arty picture that depicts bulk collection and data-mining by tech companies. Photo: 123RF

'Everybody is doing it'

The governor of PNG's capital Powes Parkop claimed such data gathering was not unique to China, describing it as a standard dossier that countries put together on other parts of the world.

"We shouldn't be over-alarmed by it. I think everybody is doing it. I would encourage PNG to compile a dossier on Chinese officials and Chinese business people so we have a better understanding of who is who in China, so we can have a better relationship, so the dynamics can be better, we can deal with them on an equal footing."

The dataset appears to confirm a key strategy of Beijing's as it grows its influence in Pacific Island countries. It involves identifying key figures in country, building a relationship, offering opportunities.

Opportunities have opened up as Chinese investment and assistance packages have increased in PNG over recent years.

A limousine carrying China's President Xi Jinping drives past dancers in traditional attire. Port Moresby, November 16, 2018.

A limousine carrying China's President Xi Jinping drives past dancers in traditional attire. Port Moresby, November 16, 2018. Photo: AFP

A Minister for Community Development, Youth & Religion in the current James Marape-led government in PNG, Wake Goi, is another whose name is on the list. He said that as he was re-elected to parliament in 2017, he noticed the trend.

"I thought the O'Neill government (the administration under PNG's previous prime minister Peter O'Neill) has been heavily involved with China people," he explained.

"So I thought this group of people associated and must have given all their details and all these sort of things. Still, it doesn't worry me because I'm not part of that system."

He said China's growing influence in the Pacific was reflected in the number of projects its companies were working on in PNG, inlcuding big infrastructure developments such as the upgrade of the Highlands Highway.

When governor of Eastern Highlands, Julie Soso established a 'sister province' relationship with China's province of Fujian, under which various projects were started to promote agricultural exports from her region.

"That was a government-to-government relationship. But for us to be on a private company's database, for me I wouldn't agree - they have to get permission from me first."

Road construction continues apace in PNG's capital ahead of November's APEC summit.

Chinese-led road construction project in PNG's capital, Port Moresby. Photo: RNZ Pacific / Johnny Blades

Powes Parkop cautioned against PNG pointing the finger of blame at China for something he claimed other partners of PNG have done too.

"And this comes to the point, should we be afraid of the Chinese? On the record and on history, the Chinese have not done what the Europeans have done.

"We should be more suspicious about Europeans, they've colonised the world, they've divided the world, they've divided people. They've divided our people here in the island of New Guinea, and we're still trying to recover from it."

But in light of the dataset leak, a former PNG Chief Ombudsman, Public Service Commission chairman and Police Commissioner, Ila Geno, issued a warning.

While he doesn't mind too much that his name made the list, he said there was a larger threat to PNG posed by an undemocratic regime getting a hold on political leaders who may be compromised.

"We can be bought, we can be bribed, and then we're gone and there's no future generation of democracy in this part of the hemisphere.

"The communism regime, I am deadly against. I'm not talking about the people. I'm not against human beings. People have to understand this.

"Unless we have a system right from childhood up, learning democracy, then we will be infiltrated and invaded by non-democratic and other regimes," he said, adding that this was already happening in PNG's case.

Australia and New Zealand should work with PNG to strengthen democratic institutions in the country and regionally, Geno said.

The governor of Papua New Guinea's National Capital District, Powes Parkop.

The governor of Papua New Guinea's National Capital District, Powes Parkop. Photo: RNZ / Koroi Hawkins

Cyber weakness exposed

PNG's government is quietly fuming over the database leak, particularly after recent, separate revelations that a data centre built in Port Moresby in 2018 by Chinese company Huawei Technologies, designed to store the entire data archive of the PNG government, left files open to cybertheft.

According to Timothy Masiu, the government is frustated, given the data centre was funded with a US$53 million loan from China's Exim Bank.

"Since the data centre is not working up to standard and there is obviously information being leaked, I call for the loan to be scrapped. There's no need for us to repay the loan because what they put up there doesn't work, so why should we be paying for something that isn't working?

China's ambassador said the data centre was a mutually beneficial project between the two countries, and that it required constant input of resources, funding and necessary maintenance.

Xue said the spying allegations were "totally nonsense and smearing against Chinese companies".

Ishmael Toroama

Ishmael Toroama, the new president of PNG's autonomous region of Bougainville Photo: Facebook

With PNG's cyber shortcomings exposed, Masiu said that his ministry's work to strengthen protections was all the more important.

"We have developed a Digital Transformation policy. This policy looks into a lot of issues as far as ICT is concerned. I believe that when we bring forward the bill in parliament to change some of the laws we have in this country, that can actually help us."

But that does little to ease concern that PNG, a developing country of strategic importance at the junction of Asia and the Pacific, could continue to be exposed at its weak points.

A number of the PNG people listed in the dataset are Bougainvilleans, including Masiu himself. Bougainville recently voted overwhelmingly for independence and could, subject to negotiations with PNG, become the world's newest country in the coming years.

"If they are spying on Bougainvilleans then that's a problem," Masiu said. "I wouldn't mind knowing why they would be spying on us. So those are some things that I'll be asking the ambassador."