Taiwan is bracing for an onslaught of cyberattacks from China ahead of local elections in November.
China, along with Russia and North Korea, might be increasingly testing out hacking techniques in the nation before using them against the US and other foreign powers, the Taiwanese government said, adding that the tests involve new malware tools mostly used to target government agencies, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Economic Affairs.
Since President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) took office in May 2016, Beijing has insisted that Tsai’s government accept the so-called “1992 consensus,” which Tsai refuses to do.
The “1992 consensus” — a term former Mainland Affairs Council chairman Su Chi (蘇起) admitted making up in 2000 — refers to a tacit understanding between the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese government that both sides acknowledge there is “one China,” with each side having its own interpretation of what “China” means.
Beijing has responded with a multipronged effort to squeeze her administration: Chipping away at the number of its diplomatic partners, ramping up military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and pressuring foreign airlines and hotels to refer to Taiwan as part of China.
China’s campaign has also fueled a growing struggle for global influence with the US, which maintains informal ties with Taiwan, despite moving its embassy to Beijing four decades ago.
“To some extent, Taiwan against China is David against Goliath,” said Ben Read, head of cyberespionage analysis at US cybersecurity firm FireEye. “The volume we see and the resources would be hard for anyone to keep up with.”
Taiwan’s government endured 360 successful cyberattacks last year, possibly compromising sensitive and classified data, said Howard Jyan (簡宏偉), director of the Executive Yuan’s Department of Cyber Security.
However, the number of attempts was far greater.
About 20 million to 40 million were carried out each month last year, he said, adding that servers in civil, military and research departments have been targeted, including hospital systems hacked to steal personal health information and other private data.
China in turn has lashed out at Taiwan’s intelligence agencies.
On Sunday last week, it demanded that Taipei “cease infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland to avoid further harming increasingly complex and severe” relations, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported, citing China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman An Fengshan (安峰山).
The office did not reply to faxed questions about Taiwan’s accusations.
The Xinhua report was “fake information that sabotages cross-strait relations,” Presidential Office spokesman Alex Huang (黃重諺) said.
Taiwan this month plans to open a government cybersecurity training program for companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to send their IT personnel to, with grants for up to 150 students yearly.
Last year, it created a military cybercommand, and it has earmarked more than NT$1.6 billion (US$52 million) in next year’s budget to safeguard Web sites and databases most targeted by mainland cyberspies, the Taipei Times reported. (“Cabinet plans big cybersecurity budget” Sept. 4, page 1)
The National Communications Commission on Tuesday said that Taiwanese media could be fined up to NT$2 million if found to disseminate unverified or fake content that hurts the public interest.
The move came after officials blamed fake news shared on social media for the recent suicide of Su Chii-cherng (蘇啟誠), director-general of the Osaka branch of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office.
Posts identified as originating in China falsely claimed Chinese consular officials were forced to rescue Taiwanese nationals stranded at Osaka’s airport during Typhoon Jebi, after Taiwan’s representatives failed to act.
Over the past year, FireEye has seen Chinese hackers target Taiwanese NGOs and its education, telecoms and government sectors.
“They see Taiwanese society as part of Chinese society, so they really cover all segments,” Read said.
Sixty percent of organizations observed in Taiwan were targeted with advanced cyberattacks in the second half of the previous year — greater than anywhere else in the world, FireEye said in 2016.
Observed organizations were four times more likely to be exposed to an advanced attack than the global average of 15 percent, it said.
Taiwan’s cyberdefenses are stronger than most in Southeast Asia thanks to its high-tech expertise in computer manufacturing, cyber analysts said.
However, they cannot overcome China’s drive to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, which has severely hampered its ability to seek help from allies in countering the attacks.
“We need assistance from foreign countries, but the worsening cross-strait relations are making it more difficult for us to seek participation in Interpol,” Criminal Investigation Bureau Chief Tsai Tsang-po (蔡蒼柏) said.
Interpol president Meng Hongwei (孟宏偉), is also the Chinese deputy minister of Public Security.
Taiwan was forced to quit the global police agency in 1984 — when China joined the organization — and has since failed to obtain permission to attend its general assembly even as an observer, further squeezing Taiwan’s ability to gain the cooperation of cyber investigators in other countries.
Additional reporting by staff writer
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