Fri, Aug 24, 2018 - Page 6 News List

China sees surge in personal data sales

A FEW CLICKS AWAY:Reporters were able to buy personal data, such as cellphone usage, for as little as 3 yuan, even though selling such data is punishable under law

Reuters, SHANGHAI

When William Zhang’s car insurance was about to expire in March, he did not need to look far for renewal options. In the two months before the policy was up, Zhang received calls almost daily from insurers trying to sell him a new one.

Since his initial policy was from Ping An Insurance Group, it was natural that the company had been in touch.

“What confuses me is how other insurance companies knew about it,” said Zhang, a 26-year-old government employee from Shandong.

Three other car owners told reporters that they had experienced the same problem.

Personal data has become widely available in China and can be scooped up for pennies by insurance companies, banks, loan sharks and scammers alike, according to sellers and financiers interviewed by reporters.

China in May introduced its most comprehensive data protection laws to date, tightening restrictions on the sharing of private data held by financial institutions and other firms.

“Personal information leaks are risky,” said Susan Ning (寧宣鳳), a partner at the law firm King & Wood Mallesons in Beijing. “Such information can facilitate other crimes.”

Insurers often buy numbers from shadowy online data sellers, who themselves have acquired the information illegally, according to people in the industry.

Some companies illegally buy information from motor vehicle departments, car licensing authorities, car sellers or police stations, said Michelle Hu, a partner at Bain & Co who has been a consultant on insurance deals.

By entering keywords like “personal data” or “cellphone data” in Chinese, reporters found more than 30 groups created for the purpose of selling and buying personal information on Tencent’s instant messaging service QQ and Baidu Inc’s forum site Tieba.

Baidu declined to comment.

In an e-mailed statement, Tencent said it was “committed to the protection of user privacy and maintaining data security.”

Information sellers post advertisements in the online groups and negotiate with buyers through private messages on QQ or WeChat.

Five sellers offered to sell reporters lists from financial institutions of “people who need loans,” “people who need insurance” and “Shanghainese men aged between 30 to 50.”

The price of such information varied among sellers, ranging from 300 yuan to 2,800 yuan (US$43.68 to US$407.65) for 100,000 people.

A sample list included birth dates, car and home ownership status, and mortgage information, in addition to names and telephone numbers.

Reporters were unable to verify the authenticity of the information.

Three loan agents who sell mortgages for three leading Chinese lenders said customer information was often sold by bank employees.

Some Internet companies also provide access to sensitive personal information for a fee, according to reporters’ communications with two such platforms.

For example, Duoku Technology, a Wuhan-based firm, operates a personal information search platform.

For 5 yuan, Duoku returns the ID picture of any Chinese citizen whose name and ID number are provided. For 3 yuan, the site returns data about a person’s cellphone usage.

Reporters verified that both services worked. The person whose ID photograph was requested did not know how the services obtained his photo or telephone bills.

When asked where Duoku collected or purchased the information, a spokeswoman who identified herself as Ms Li said that much of the data was bought from online merchants and sold to banks and insurance companies.

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