The Cyber Offensive and Defensive Exercises (CODE) held in Taipei last week marked a significant advancement in not only the nation’s cyberdefense efforts, but also in international cooperation, as it was the first time foreign teams participated in the drills, which are held every two years.
The importance of the exercises was thrown into sharp relief with the revelation on Thursday that a hacker has been spying on e-mails sent by academics at National Sun Yat-sen University for as long as three years.
While the news is alarming, it is worth noting that few cyberattacks are successful, given their volume.
Last year, Taiwan’s public sector saw an average of 30 million such attacks per month, although only a small fraction of these were able to compromise sensitive information, Department of Cybersecurity Director-General Howard Jyan (簡宏偉) told the CODE participants.
While the vast majority of attacks are thwarted, successful hacks can have dire consequences. After coming under attack by a virus last year, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co was forced to shut down three factories for about a day, causing an estimated 3 percent decline in third-quarter revenue.
The government in the past decade has started taking this issue far more seriously, especially under President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who has integrated the dictum “information security is national security” into her governance.
In the past few years, the Cybersecurity Department was established, cybersecurity was singled out as a key sector by the “five plus two” innovative industries plan, and the Information and Electronic Warfare Command was set up to coordinate military operations. It has even proven a rare point of agreement in the Legislative Yuan, with the Information and Communication Security Management Act (資通安全管理法) passing with bipartisan support last year.
As the threat of increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks increases, liberal democracies worldwide are facing a critical junction in their approach to security. The direction they choose could have a resounding effect on the future of a free and open Internet.
Even in the US, UK and Australia, there is a growing chorus calling for companies such as Facebook to create backdoors in their messaging software for law enforcement use, while dozens of nations have enacted so-called “data localization” laws requiring servers to be within their borders.
This rings a few alarms. For one, security experts have said that it is impossible to create backdoors without weakening the security of an entire system. It also puts privacy and security at odds with each other, suggesting that individual privacy can be sacrificed in the name of security.
Taken to an extreme, this would mean that each nation would have its own closed Internet, similar to China’s, with all data within reach of governments.
Indeed, many countries are looking to China as an example, while the New York Times has reported that one-quarter of all nations have shut down the Internet at some point over the past four years.
Fear is liberty’s biggest foe. Even countries that abide by liberal democratic values can fall prey to fearmongering around security. A free and open Internet is one of modern democracy’s greatest assets, as well as one of its greatest vulnerabilities.
Protecting a free and open Internet is a borderless issue and will take borderless solutions, just like last week’s CODE drills. As a nation on the front lines of this fight, Taiwan is showing the world that it is possible to ensure security without sacrificing democratic values.
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