If this were any normal country in any ordinary neighborhood, the computer crashes that affected four international airports in Taiwan (Taoyuan, Kaohsiung, Kinmen and Nangan) on Monday would not be of major concern. But when they occur in a country such as Taiwan, which faces, about 130km away, a major military power that has relentlessly stated its ambitions to annex it — by force if necessary — the “glitch” turns into a major security problem.
Even more troubling than the “hard drive” failure itself is the fact that three National Immigration Agency (NIA) systems simultaneously went offline at rush hour. This either indicates that all airports rely on the same, centralized computer system without the redundancy (ie, a system that runs in parallel to ensure continuity when failure occurs) that one would expect for such critical infrastructure or that the systems were somehow victims of sabotage or electronic attack, domestic or foreign.
That a problem of this magnitude should occur mere months after direct daily cross-strait flights with China were implemented raises serious questions.
In light of various reports by the US and Western intelligence agencies warning that China has been modernizing and intensifying its electronic attacks on critical computer systems in the West — military, government and business — it is not impossible that Monday’s failures were the result of such an attack.
It has yet to be determined whether Monday’s failure was the result of such action, but the NIA should nevertheless be requesting help from the Ministry of the Interior as well as domestic intelligence agencies in ascertaining the nature of the problem, which they called “faulty hard drives.”
In November 2007 this newspaper carried news about Maxtor hard disks that came with a Chinese-designed Trojan Horse that automatically uploaded information to Chinese Web sites. Where the faulty hard drives were manufactured, therefore, could be of interest. If a security breach is found, agencies will have to work together to enhance security.
Equally alarming has been the NIA’s slow response — two full days of operations at Taiwan Taoyuan Airport — during which time immigration officials documented people entering and exiting the country the old-fashioned way, in handwriting. This left the officials virtually blind as they could not access the various databases and cross-referencing software that are so crucial in identifying criminals, wanted individuals and people who represent a threat to national security. The NIA itself admitted on Monday that it would not be able to determine whether people had entered or exited the country illegally.
Monday’s quadruple failure may just have been a very bad coincidence, but that is unlikely. Still, if that is the case, the NIA must invest in redundancy systems. Now. It also highlights the need for front-end screening (FES) by Taiwanese immigration officials at Chinese airports, who could detect security threats before they even enter Taiwanese territory. FES would involve challenges of its own, including systems links ensuring information integrity on Chinese territory, but such problems are not insurmountable.
Perhaps Monday was a trial run by the Chinese military-intelligence apparatus to see how Taiwan’s borders can be breached. Given the ease with which three airports were shut down simultaneously, the chaos that ensued and the NIA’s snail-paced response, China could conclude that it can blind Taiwanese border officials long enough to introduce saboteurs, intelligence operatives and military officials whenever it wants, with little chance of detection.
Any other country on a war footing would have reacted with far more alarm to the shutdown, including, in the worst situation, the cancellation of flights (at least from “high-risk” countries, such as China), disgruntled travelers notwithstanding. The NIA’s — and Taipei’s — knee-jerk handling of the case so far is evidence, yet again, that the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) does not handle the security of Taiwan with the seriousness that the country’s position warrants.
Lastly, at a time when the US government begins to worry publicly that rapprochement between Taiwan and China could result in espionage against advanced US military technology sold to Taiwan, the bad publicity engendered by Monday’s catastrophic failure cannot be understated, Chinese cyber attack or not.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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