The Handmaid's Tale or Man-made Fail? Exposed DB of 'BreedReady' women probably not as bad as it sounds

Dystopian forced pregnancy scenarios likely a figment of Western media biases

An unprotected MongoDB database of 1.8 million women in China has been taken offline after drawing media attention for the inclusion of a data field designating whether the women are "BreedReady."

The database was spotted by Victor Gevers, a researcher based in the Netherlands who founded the GDI Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on improving online security.

Interpretations of the database field in Western media swiftly skewed towards the sinister, with The Daily Beast invoking Margaret Atwood's dystopian book The Handmaid's Tale and The Guardian framing the term in the context of Chinese government concern over falling birthrates and the gender imbalance arising from government policies and cultural biases.

In a Twitter conversation with The Register, Gevers said the exposed data has been taken offline thanks to the social media attention his post received. Presently, he doesn't know who owns the data and without that, there's no way to be certain what the "BreedReady" boolean field really means.

"We have talked to many people about this one and the majority thinks literally means what it says," he said. "But others say this could be a language barrier thing."

Otto Kolbl, a researcher and doctoral student at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, who studies socio-economic development in China, warned against jumping to any conclusions. He suggested "BreedReady" might just be a Chinese developer's bad English for "willing to have a baby," which would not be out of place in a dating app.

A non-native speaker of English might not realize that "breed" tends to be used in the context of livestock and thus invites dehumanizing interpretations when applied to women. If the database key relied on less loaded terms and clearly reflected a woman's self-submitted view on possible future interest in child bearing, rather than a possible third-party assessment, it's doubtful the poorly secured database would have received much attention.

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Another Twitter user with apparent knowledge of Chinese proposed an alternate explanation: The database contains open population data used for urban planning, possibly of women living in Beijing.

Gevers, who has been reporting exposed databases for several years, said China ranks second among the countries in terms of unsafe MongoDB usage, with almost 30,000 open databases. The US has the lead, with more than 45,000. Germany, Netherlands, and France fill out the top five.

Finding poorly secured databases has become a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, by which we mean commonplace rather than foolish and messy. Last week, security researchers found an email marketing company called Verifications.io had left several MongoDB databases holding more than 2bn email marketing records exposed. Expect more of the same in the foreseeable future. ®




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