Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Lin Chun-hsien (林俊憲) on Monday expressed concern upon learning that self-service baggage drop systems at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport’s Terminal 1 contain software made in China.
Lin is right to be concerned, as thousands of international flights pass through the terminal every year. Baggage-drop systems collect identifying information about passengers and their travel itineraries. Software within the baggage system could potentially transmit this information to China, which could allow authorities there to know when individuals of interest — Taiwanese politicians, foreign dignitaries, democracy activists, Chinese dissidents — are leaving or arriving in Taiwan, and where they are coming from or going to.
Chinese technology is a top government concern. In 2019, it followed a US ban on equipment and devices made by Huawei Technologies Co, among others, from being used in Taiwan’s technology infrastructure. A total ban on the use of Chinese tech took effect in January, barring politicians from using Chinese-made cellphones and computers for work purposes, among other restrictions.
Taoyuan International Airport Corp is a government entity. Responding to Lin’s concerns, the facility said it had been informed by the contractor responsible for the system that it mistakenly thought it could still use minor assembly components made in China.
The situation reveals that there is insufficient oversight of contracted work. Article 10 of the Government Procurement Act (政府採購法) stipulates that the Public Construction Commission is tasked with “reviewing and approving standard procurement contracts.” Procurement is handled by “an entity at a level immediately above the procuring entity,” and “if there is no such entity, then the procuring entity shall perform” those duties itself “as provided for in this act.” This makes the commission seem to be an ombudsman rather than a supervisory body.
Such a body would be a permanent government agency comprised of members vetted for political neutrality and expertise in the fields being contracted. It would ensure that software and hardware used in government projects come from Taiwanese or trusted foreign sources unconnected to China.
Contractors are driven by profit and use the cheapest components whenever possible, including those that could pose information-security concerns. The government should develop a list of trusted contractors based on thorough vetting or a points system designed to reward the use of Taiwanese goods and services.
Issues with contractors are not limited to concerns surrounding information security. Last year’s fatal derailment of a Taroko Express train, which killed 49 people, was caused by a contractor’s negligence. The Taiwan Railways Administration has been ordered to improve its oversight of contractors, but having different agencies handle such supervision frequently results in inconsistencies. A better approach is to have oversight of infrastructure projects handled centrally.
Mismanagement of a contractor was also evident in April when Jiong De Construction, hired by Southeast Cement Corp, toppled a transmission tower as it was demolishing a silo in Kaohsiung, knocking out power and suspending rail services.
The government should consider implementing central oversight of contractors working on public projects. Criteria could be established for supervision, such as projects above a specified cost, those requiring environmental impact assessments, or those conducted within a certain distance of public infrastructure — and of course, those involving communications and transportation.
If such oversight is not implemented soon, the next accident or information leak will only make calls for regulation grow louder.
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