EDITORIAL: Modern warfare in the Internet age

Tue, May 14, 2013 - Page 8

The government has issued an ultimatum to the Philippines over the fatal shooting of Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成), a crewmember of the Kuang Ta Hsing No. 28, by personnel aboard a Philippine Coast Guard vessel, demanding an apology and compensation within 72 hours. The Coast Guard Administration and Ministry of National Defense have deployed armed ships to protect Taiwanese fishermen in the area. While there are clearly tensions between Taiwan and the Philippines, relations are still at the stage of diplomatic jostling — the two sides are engaged in a game of chicken.

However, another war is being waged online as Taiwanese netizens vent their fury over the incident. While the government has been reticent in its response, the public has been quick to express anger. This has been evidenced by the deluge of comments left by Taiwanese on the Facebook page of the Philippine Coast Guard and messages posted on international Web sites denouncing the behavior of the Philippine government.

The more radical among these netizens targeted official Web sites of the Philippines, displacing announcements on central and local government sites or overloading servers to force prolonged suspension of services. The Philippine government has been obliged to adopt emergency measures and has put in place more stringent identification requirements to prevent further cyberattacks.

Not that the cyberwar has been one-sided: Hackers using IP addresses in the Philippines have launched attacks on the official Web sites of the Presidential Office, the Coast Guard Administration, the defense ministry and the Ministry of Economic Affairs, as well as those of the Taipei City Government and the Greater Tainan Government. Some private companies’ sites were also targeted. The government has said it has asked Manila to deal with these IP addresses, and that if it fails to comply it will consider blocking all Philippine IP addresses.

Nor has the war been confined to people from Taiwan and the Philippines; hackers from China have also entered the fray, launching attacks on Philippine government Web sites. Whereas Taiwanese cyberattacks have been predominantly denial-of-service attempts, the Chinese cyberattacks have been more direct and concerted. Chinese cyberattacks on the Philippine government’s Web site replaced the Philippine national flag with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) flag and issued warnings to Manila.

The situation is still unfolding, but already it has demonstrated a valuable lesson: In modern warfare, the public can react more quickly than governments, and unofficial online wars have an edge over official protests. Of course, the government is not going openly launch cyberattacks, but it must arm itself against such attacks from elsewhere.

If the government’s computers are hacked, data and control can become compromised, potentially making the nation more vulnerable should conventional warfare break out. China has established its own cyberforces. It has been reported that a large number of overseas news agencies and governments have suffered cyberattacks that have been traced to a building in Shanghai, where it is suspected that a secret military cyberunit is at work.

Taiwan’s own readiness for cyberwarfare is still in a fledgling state, and we are woefully behind in basic defenses for blocking cyberattacks, erecting effective firewalls and preventing government Web sites, like that of the Presidential Office, from being hacked.

Taiwan boasts a world-class information technology industry; we are leaders in software and hardware, and possess the necessary conditions for establishing effective cybersecurity capabilities. When this incident with the Philippines has passed, defense authorities must elevate cyberwarfare to the top of their list of priorities.