As long as one is willing to pay, almost any kind of personal information of someone else is available in China.
A reporter with the Southern Metropolis Daily, based in China's Guangdong province, recently went undercover and paid just 700 yuan (S$145) to acquire information about a colleague's whereabouts including his flight details, hotel accommodation, and time spent at Internet bars.
The illegal information provider was willing to sell information on the colleague's exact location for 600 yuan. For 300 yuan, the reporter could get information on the colleague's hotel stay records since the time of his college examination. The information provider was also able to reveal bank account information of the colleague, as well as a list of assets under his name.
The investigative report, published on Monday (Dec 12), has triggered much unease among people in China over the absence of protection of sensitive personal information.
The dubious industry of illegal information providers "has upgraded to become a platform service provider which levies a fee for its services", Chinese media reports said.
On Dec 8, the reporter, under the pretext of researching the background of a relative's spouse-to-be, contacted the unnamed information provider company. The investigative reporting process was earlier approved by the colleague whose private information was being sought.
By simply providing the target colleague's identity card number, the information provider could glean data about the target's travel records, driving records, any criminal records, residential information, as well as bank accounts details from major Chinese banks. Known as the "full service" package, this would cost 850 yuan, staff at the information providing firm told the reporter, adding that they provide 24-hour service, and various information could be handed over a day after payment was made.
The transaction was conducted over China's popular messaging app WeChat.
The reporter, armed with the information provided, verified it with his target colleague, and found out that all the information provided was accurate.
The reporter then decided to get the information provider firm to track the location of another colleague through the latter's mobile phone GPS signals.
The location was also provided about half an hour after the reporter made a payment of 600 yuan.
According to the reporter, the information provider acts as an agent in the data supply chain, and is backed by a network of information culling services firms. Similar information provider agents can be found on Twitter-like Weibo, desktop messaging service QQ, and Alibaba's platforms like Taobao.
On the issue of invasion of privacy, the reporter has asked the authorities for their response, but has yet to receive any.
"Chinese citizens are powerless against their private information being exposed and trafficked because of the high cost of civil lawsuits in China and the slim chance of identifying the suspects," Mr Xie Yongjiang, deputy director of the Institute of Internet Governance and Law at the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, told the Global Times on Monday.
"Big data has the ability to access a person's life," Mr Xie noted.
He added that law enforcement is difficult because the databases on personal information are usually collected by employees of companies and governments, which might be sold long after they are collected.
Mr Qin An, director of the China Institute of Cyberspace Strategy, told the Global Times that perpetrators, their employers and platform operators will be held accountable for information leaks, in accordance with China's first Cyber Security Law, which will take effect in June 2017.
Mr Fang Binxing, the developer of China's Great Firewall, the Internet censorship infrastructure, told the Global Times that China would improve and apply an e-ID encryption system to protect personal information online.
He noted that improved technology, rather than law enforcement, is the key to solving unauthorised information disclosure.
On Monday, police from central China's Hubei province arrested 11 people over the alleged hacking and reselling of the personal information of 93,000 people, including their names, identification numbers and mobile phone numbers. Police also seized four million yuan, the Global Times reported.