Information has come to light that could indicate that a Chinese tourist who was caught in May last year taking photos in a restricted area of an army recruitment center in downtown Taipei may have been directed by Chinese intelligence.
On May 25 last year, Ma Zhongfei (馬中飛), a Chinese tourist who reportedly was chairman of a high-tech company, left his tour group at Taipei 101 and ended up at an Armed Forces recruitment center on Keelung Road, about 2km away from the landmark. After entering a computer warfare command area through a back door, Ma was caught by security taking photos in the computer warfare command area.
While the recruitment center is open to the general public, the computer warfare command area is a restricted facility.
After being apprehended by military police, Ma was handed over to the Taiwan High Prosecutors’ Office for investigation on suspicion of illegally intruding into a military area.
The following day, a prosecutor ordered Ma’s release and did not bar him from leaving Taiwan. The Ministry of Justice said it didn’t have sufficient evidence to indict him.
A former government official who handled intelligence matters under the former Democratic Progressive Party administration told the Taipei Times earlier this week that the Ma case was far more alarming than it first appeared and hinted that political intervention may have played a role in the decision not to charge him.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that aside from the off-limit computer warfare command area, which falls under the Ministry of National Defense, the area also houses the government’s Information and Communication Security Technology (ICST) center, a little-known unit under the Executive Yuan’s Research, Development and Evaluation Commission that plays a crucial coordination role in ensuring information security for all government agencies. In the government hierarchy, the ICST ranks above the ministry’s computer warfare center.
Established in 2002, the decision was made to locate the secretive ICST center in the vicinity of the warfare center to facilitate cooperation between the two bodies, whose responsibilities are to protect the nation against cyber warfare — mostly from China.
The source said certain branches of central government, including the prosecutors’ office, may not have been informed of the location of the ICST, given its sensitivity.
As the country is the principal target of Chinese cyber warfare, Taiwan has become a leader in research on and protection against Chinese hacking, the source said, adding that some countries, including Germany, have turned to Taiwan for assistance after being the target of Chinese cyber attacks.
The source said China has an estimated 300,000 professional hackers and that they are directed — and paid — by the Chinese government to launch cyber attacks on its behalf. Estimating the number of “high value” targets in Taiwan to be in the vicinity of 10,000, this implies a ratio of 30 Chinese hackers per target, the former official said.
Asked how those numbers had been assessed, the source said it came mostly from human intelligence in China.
The Chinese-language Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper) in February last year reported that the National Security Council may have ordered the National Security Bureau to cease recruitment of agents to work inside China.
A drawdown in human intelligence in China and a deprioritization of China as a counterintelligence target would make it even more difficult for Taiwanese agencies to determine what information Chinese spies are looking for and what has been compromised, the source said.
The former official suggested that in its efforts to foster closer relations with Beijing, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government may not only have imposed further restrictions on espionage against China, but could also have downplayed the Ma incident.
Asked if Ma knew what he was looking for on May 25 — in other words, if he knew of, or had been directed to ascertain, the location of the ICST center — the source said it was “very probable.”
Earlier this month, Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) said Taiwan could soon lift its ban on individual Chinese tourists. Chinese tourists made 900,000 visits last year. That figure is expected to reach 1.2 million this year.
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