EDITORIAL: Cyberthreats must be dealt with now

Sat, Sep 22, 2018 - Page 8

With key elections scheduled for November, it is understandable that Taiwan and the US are concerned about the possibility of cyberattacks and a flood of fake news reports, so it was good on Thursday to hear President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and US National Security Adviser John Bolton speak about the need for democratic nations to band together to counter such assaults.

Tsai made her appeal while meeting with a group from the Atlantic Council, a 57-year-old Washington-based think tank that promotes constructive leadership and engagement in international affairs, while Bolton was speaking to reporters at a White House news briefing.

Tsai’s primary concern was China’s propaganda efforts, while Bolton spoke of cyberthreats to the US not only from China and Russia — the bane of the US’ 2016 election — but North Korea and Iran as well.

However, other Taiwanese officials have spoken about concerns that hackers in North Korea and Russia, as well as China, are targeting government and private-sector computers and Web sites.

Department of Cyber Security Director-General Howard Jyan (簡宏偉) has said several times this year that hackers from the three nations, either directly or indirectly supported by their governments, are using Taiwan as a testing site for new tools and techniques before using them against other countries.

However, it is not just hackers and extremist Web sites that are cause for concern.

Earlier this week it was reported that the US Department of Justice has told Xinhua news agency and China Global Television Network to register as foreign agents under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), amid increased scrutiny of foreign media organizations.

The US late last year required Russia’s English-language RT television network and Sputnik Radio to register under FARA after both outlets were named by US intelligence authorities for their involvement in Moscow’s efforts to interfere with the US’ 2016 presidential election, and then linked by academic researchers and investigative reporters with efforts to interfere in the UK’s Brexit referendum in June of that year.

The US move was a good reminder that it is not just social media platforms, extremist Web sites and hackers that threaten democratic systems, but state-run or state-controlled media outlets in non-democratic states as well.

However, very much in line with the detached-from-reality view that has come to be expected of Beijing’s — or Moscow’s — mouthpieces, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang (耿爽), when asked about the US move, said that his government was opposed to politicizing the role of the media.

Geng must have forgotten Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) widely publicized visits on Feb. 26, 2016, to three major media outlets in which he demanded that they “must love the party, protect the party and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics and action” or, as the People’s Daily said in an editorial afterward, the main role of reporters was to be “disseminators of the party’s politics and propositions,” not reporters of the truth.

Tsai and Bolton talked about the need to work through alliances to combat cyberthreats, while Bolton warned of potential offensive and defensive actions, although he would not be drawn into specifics.

Taiwan, the US and other nations need to do more to stop hostile interference in their democratic processes by ensuring they have the necessary laws to target and punish those that aid and abet such actions.

It is too late for Taiwan or the US to do much ahead of their November elections except try to increase public awareness about disinformation campaigns and fake news, but both countries face key presidential elections in two years. Action is needed now to ensure those polls do not face the same level of threat.