How China’s database targeted Australia’s space industry

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Angus Grigg

Leading figures in Australia’s nascent space industry suspect their extensive profiling in a Chinese database can be linked to repeated cyber attacks, as Beijing seeks a technological advantage in the strategic sector.

The focus on advanced technology in the Overseas Key Individuals Database (OKIDB), revealed by The Australian Financial Review on Monday, and China’s history of intellectual property theft indicate how the information may have been mobilised.

“It is a very old Chinese playbook,” said Pamela Melroy, a former NASA space shuttle commander now working with the Australian space industry.

“The first step is to identify what technology is out there and then the next step is often major hacking.”

Gilmour Space Technologies co-founders Adam and James Gilmour have been extensively targeted. 

Ms Melroy said space had always been a target area for Chinese intelligence collection and the inclusion of the Australian industry, as part of the database, showed it was getting noticed globally.

The Financial Review revealed the database contained profiles on more than 35,000 Australians, from politicians to business and cultural leaders, as part of a global effort targeting influential figures.

Compiled by military contractor China Zhenhua, the database has extensively mapped the Australian space industry, including the country’s only indigenous rocket builder, Gilmour Space.

James Gilmour, who co-founded the company which bears his name with brother Adam, said cyber attacks from China were an almost daily proposition.

“When you’re building rockets there’s never a dull moment,” he said. Mr Gilmour is tagged as “active” on the database, which contains his photo and details from his LinkedIn profile. It then expands out to include three of the company’s board members, including Ms Melroy, Dava Newman and Rick Baker.

Former astronaut and space shuttle commander Pamela Melroy says China has long collected intelligence on the space industry. NASA

The collection against Ms Melroy is the most extensive. It notes she joined the board of South Australian satellite company Myriota, while also working with Adelaide space consulting firm Nova Systems.

While these tags detail Ms Melroy’s professional appointments, the more strategically interesting elements were comments about an Australian consortium being formed to develop mining on the moon.

This could potentially provide a fuel source for a manned mission to Mars and any breakthrough would give the US and its allies a big head start in this emerging race, in which Beijing is competing fiercely.

‘A play for resources’

China, after being a slow starter, is now viewed as a tier-one space nation having landed a lunar probe on the far side of the moon in January last year.

While Ms Melroy has welcomed China’s interest in the sector, she said Beijing’s behaviour in the South China Sea did make some worry their space program is “a play for resources”.

China’s profiling of the local space industry broadens out further to include Megan Clarke, head of the Australian Space Agency, and her deputy, Anthony Murfett.

The Australian Space Research Institute and the National Space Society of Australia, where Mr Gilmour is a director, are also listed as part of the Key Organisations Database.

The venture capital funders which have backed Gilmour Space, Blackbird Ventures and Main Sequence Ventures, are also listed.

Mr Gilmour said his appearance on the database was not surprising, given he’s responsible for fostering co-operation and relationships with Defence Departments and governments.

These efforts saw Gilmour Space ink a deal in May with the Defence Science and Technology Group, an agency which sits under the Australian Defence Department, to co-operate on rocket propulsion, advanced materials and avionics.

The goal is to have an indigenous launch capability for satellites by 2022. “We want to be the FedEx for satellites,” said Mr Gilmour. “We’re building a rocket from the ground up and I guess that attracts some attention.”

He stressed none of the cyber attacks had been successful and while he viewed them as “very tricky and sophisticated”, authorities said they followed the pattern of many other attacks.

Fight for big data

The profiling of the Australian space industry shows how open-source collection, powered by artificial intelligence and big data, can be used to identify potential targets or a possible entry point into an organisation.

The tagging of those with criminal records or sanctioned by the corporate regulator adds a further element to the database and points to how potential weak spots are identified.

For Gilmour Space a potential opening was the arrest of a man with the same last name, who was a member of the outlawed Mongols motorcycle gang.

While the man was not a relative of the two Gilmour Space founders, a potential connection was identified. “It was wrong in this case,” said one former intelligence officer. “But you need to be able to make those connections to then test if they are correct.”

This explains the strong representation of those charged with crimes on the OKIDB and potential connections to those identified as “key people”. The Zhenhua website, which was taken down after questions were put to the company, describes this as its “relational database”.

Dr Samantha Hoffman, who has extensively studied China’s bulk data collection for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, sees it as another element of Beijing’s military build-up.

“The Chinese party-state intends to use bulk data collection to support its efforts to shape, manage and control its global operating environment, and to generate co-operative and coercive tools of control,” she said.

For Australia that means more than 35,000 individuals among a global database of 2.4 million people and 650,000 organisations.

Zhenhua boasts of collecting 3 billion articles from 40,000 sources.

The scale of this collection, which is done through scraping the servers of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Crunchbase, potentially allows an intelligence agency or government department to quickly pull up key data on an individual or industry and identify their connections to others in the field.

Angus Grigg is an investigative reporter based in Sydney. He has worked as a foreign correpondent in China and Indonesia, and has won two Walkley Awards. Connect with Angus on Twitter. Email Angus at agrigg@afr.com

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