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July 9, 2015

Spy vs. Spy: China Eyes Data Mining

George Leopold

The timing is interesting: China’s official Xinhau News Agency moved a story this week about government agencies embracing big data. The dispatch came weeks after the United States accused China of hacking a U.S. personnel database containing sensitive information about nearly 20 million individuals who had applied for background checks required to received security clearances. The breach also compromised personal information about millions of federal employees.

(The U.S. Office of Personnel Management revealed on Thursday [July 9] that “sensitive information” on 21.5 million individuals was compromised in the hack of the agency’s computer networks.)

The Xinhau report notes that the provincial government of Hubei in central China has become the first to deploy a data analytics system. It will be used by the Hubei’s industrial and commercial innovation administration, which the report said has accumulated “tons of company information, law enforcement records, market monitoring reports [and] consumers’ complaints over the years.”

The new data analytics platform will be used to consolidate “isolated islands” of data stored and forgotten on government office computers.

The report also indicates that a nascent big data ecosystem may be emerging in China. Xinhau quoted the chief analyst of Wuhan-based DaMeng Database Co., which claims to have developed database intellectual property that led to development of an indigenous database management system.

According to the company’s web site, “DaMeng database has been replacing international counterparts as the main service supplier for many entities such as Ministry of Health and provincial library in Hubei.”

The company told Xinhua it is trying to assist provincial agencies in leveraging data they have been sitting on for years. “Data are dead if we fail to dig useful conclusions and trends out of them,” DaMeng’s Shen Zhiliang told the news service. “Development of big data theory and innovation of advanced data mining techniques make it possible for regulators to use big data in their daily work.”

China’s cabinet, or State Council, earlier this month issued guidelines for leveraging big data to regulate domestic markets. Xinhau reported that China Securities Regulatory Commission would be required under the guidelines to help the financial sector deploy data analytics. The big data rules would cover banks, security firms, trust management companies, finance leasing operators, insurers and industry associations.

Other branches of the Chinese government are also reportedly rolling out big data platforms. The Supreme People’s Court announced that all Chinese non-military courts are now linked to a “judicial big data center.”

Meanwhile, other Chinese provinces are reported to be monitoring the big data rollout in Hubei as they plan their own deployments. “More analytic systems are expected to be launched in other parts of China in the near future,” Xinhua reported.

Reports of growing Chinese interest in big data along with development of indigenous analytics technologies coincide with assertions by U.S. security experts. Many believe the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was behind the OPM hack as part of a strategy to sweep up data so it can begin to connect the dots on its chief adversary: the United States.

“Correlate [OPM personnel] data with health records and with open source material—think PLA meets big data—and you can get deep insights into who you are playing against,” James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies asserted in a recent blog post on the OPM hack. “You feel like you know them. You want to be in their skin to predict how they will act and where they will make mistakes.”

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