The recent hacking attacks targeting Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officials and senior staff at Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) presidential campaign office could be Taiwan’s version of the Watergate scandal, a former official in charge of electronic communications for the government has said.
The DPP last week announced that the e-mail accounts of senior officials and staff at Tsai’s office had been hacked into and that confidential information had been stolen. In a press release, the party said that an investigation had traced the attacks back to IP addresses from Xinhua news agency bureaus in Beijing and Malaysia, addresses in Australia, as well as the Research, Development and Evaluation Commission (RDEC) in Taipei.
Among those targeted was Alex Huang (黃重諺), deputy director of the party’s Policy Research Committee, who said he received between 10 and 20 e-mails a day that looked like they were written by colleagues, but that, once opened, would automatically install malware that monitors a user’s computer.
A former senior official who handled electronic communication security under former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) administration told the Taipei Times on condition of anonymity last week that the truly worrying aspect of the recent attacks was the domestic angle.
The former official, whose e-mail account was among those targeted by hackers, said the attacks started in March — the same month Tsai officially launched her presidential campaign — and spiked in May.
Aside from the campaign office and DPP officials, the DPP’s think tank and the e-mail accounts of academics associated with the party were also targeted, said the former official, who returned to academia after leaving government and remains involved with the party.
According to the former official, the nature of the confidential information targeted by the hackers represented a clear departure from traditional hacking by China.
Predominantly electoral information, such as campaign promotional material, event schedules and Tsai’s platform, was accessed by the hackers, he said.
“I don’t think Beijing is very much interested in the DPP’s strategy for social security,” the former official said, adding that this pointed instead to possible attempts by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), or its supporters to steal that information.
Traditionally, Chinese espionage operations against Taiwan, including hacking, have targeted its foreign policy, potential arms purchases and position on Taiwan independence.
If the source’s conclusions were correct, this would signify that the domestic attacks and those originating from overseas were likely unrelated.
Asked if the DPP had faced similar attacks in the lead-up to the presidential election in 2008, the source said this was not the case.
“Everybody knew back then that the DPP was going to lose the election,” he said, adding that at the time, the DPP was in power and the nation’s national security apparatus had “demonstrated its neutrality.”
The possibility that the Ma campaign or someone within the KMT orchestrated the hacking attacks against Tsai’s campaign would signal great uncertainty within the KMT regarding Ma’s chances of getting re-elected in January, he said.
However, the source doubted the attack was launched at the executive level, such as at the RDEC, saying instead that the professional nature of the operation pointed to the National Security Bureau (NSB).