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Personal Data of Prominent Chinese Posted on Twitter

For a few brief hours this week, China had its own answer to WikiLeaks: a mysterious Twitter account that posted the personal information of dozens of the country's most prominent people, including billionaires and even the architect of the country's Internet controls.

The account @shenfenzheng — which means "personal identification" in Chinese — was suspended by Twitter on Thursday afternoon, making its posts no longer available. Before it was suspended, the account was used to post photographs and screenshots containing personal information including addresses, national identification numbers, educational attainment and marital status of well-known Chinese.

Among them were the two richest people in mainland China, Jack Ma, the chairman of the Internet giant Alibaba Group, and Wang Jianlin, the chairman of Dalian Wanda Group, a real estate company.

It was not clear who controlled the account, or whether that person was inside or outside China. If inside, the person had the technical means to overcome the country's so-called Great Firewall, which blocks Twitter. The person, or people, appear to view China's Internet controls with some disdain: One of the identification cards posted by @shenfenzheng was purported to be that of Fang Binxing, known as the architect of the Great Firewall.

In mainland China, buying and disseminating personal information is against the law, and violators can face three to seven years in jail and fines, according to a statute passed last year by the National People's Congress. But thousands, if not millions, of people have access to the national police database that contains such information, and if they do not, they may know someone who does.

"Surprised by these tidbits of information?" @shenfenzheng posted before the account was suspended. "I hope this can get fellow countrymen thinking. Personal privacy is worth nothing in China."

The goal of @shenfenzheng appears to be to draw attention to the illegal selling of personal information in China, a widespread practice. Private investigators can buy troves of personal data to obtain information on companies or individuals. Others abuse the online national police files for more prosaic reasons, like planning class reunions.

In the United States, nine-digit Social Security numbers say little about a person, other than perhaps the region where they lived when they applied for a card.

In mainland China, national identity numbers contain far more information in its 18 digits, including sex, birth date and the province, city and even neighborhood of a person's legal residence. Those numbers, despite the tough new law, can sometimes be found on websites of government agencies, like the State Administration of Industry and Commerce.

There are other ways to legally obtain such numbers. Chinese citizens who are directors in companies registered in Hong Kong often provide their home addresses and national identification card numbers on publicly available documents found on the city's online company registry.

Reporters who investigate the business interests of China's politically powerful families — and the billionaires who court them — use identification numbers to "bulletproof" their articles, giving them a vital level of certainty difficult to obtain in a country where more than 90 million people share the same last name, Wang.

The New York Times was able to verify the accuracy of the identification numbers of several of the people exposed by the @shenfenzheng account, including Mr. Wang; his wife, Lin Ning; his son, Wang Sicong; and Mr. Ma of Alibaba.

The Chinese Public Security Bureau did not respond to a fax asking whether the agency was concerned about the security of its online database and, if it is, what measures it might take to control leaks. News about the online leak was reported earlier by Bloomberg News.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

Twitter prohibits the posting of personal information such as national identification numbers. Accounts that violate that policy can be temporarily blocked or permanently suspended, according to rules on the company's website.

[Source: By Michael Forsythe, The New York Times, Hong Kong, 12May16]

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Privacy and counterintelligence
small logoThis document has been published on 20May16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.