Chinese police make 96 arrests in latest operation against personal data theft

Main suspects were highly educated technicians with access to vast amounts of private information include account passwords and ID numbers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 March, 2017, 8:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 March, 2017, 8:01am

Chinese police have arrested 96 suspects over data theft, in a case that exposes the challenges facing the country from a rampant trade in citizen’s private information, the state broadcaster reported.

In one of the biggest operations of its kind, police raided sites in 14 provinces including Anhui, Henan and Liaoning, as well as in Beijing, according to China Central Television.

The investigation, which was launched in September, revealed that the suspects hacked the web servers of social media, online gaming and video-streaming sites, from where they stole personal information that was later sold at online forums and instant messaging groups, ac­cording to the CCTV report.

The leaked information included user accounts, passwords, ID card numbers, telephone numbers and addresses, police said.

Police in southern China bust six large data theft operations

Such information was used to create forged credit card accounts and to participate in online gambling, police said.

One of the main suspects, surnamed Zheng, was an engineer at Beijing-based JD.com, one of the largest e-commerce companies on the mainland.

Police said that Zheng began to steal data from websites after earning the trust of his supervisors. After appropriating the data, Zheng would quit his job and find another one where he continued his theft.

Zheng’s qualifications enabled him to find jobs easily, mostly at large, well-known websites, where he had access to more personal data, police said.

In a statement, JD.com said that Zheng was hired in late June and was still in his employee probationary period at the time of his arrest. He had worked for a number of IT firms before joining JD.com, it said.

Another main suspect, surnamed Weng, had been hired as a technical adviser at a gaming website and online gambling platform. The case was still being investigated, police said.

China has the world’s largest internet population, with 731 million users as of 2016. The figure is expected to reach 760 million by the end of this year, the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology said.

Employees 'are likely source of data theft'

Internet users often fall victim to scams after their personal data is obtained illegally and misused on the internet. Such privacy leaks are common­place worldwide.

During a video and telephone conference on Friday, Chen Zhimin, the deputy minister of public security, admitted that cyber attacks and internet invasions of privacy remained “prominent” in the country, though police were vigorously pursuing data thieves.

Last year, police detained 4,261 suspects for misappropriating personal data.

Among these, 98 were hackers and 391 were employees of entities that had ready access to personal information, including banks, universities, telecoms, e-commerce firms and brokerages, The Beijing News reported.