Cyberattacks that temporarily paralyzed government Web sites and manipulated display screens at convenience stores and a train station coincided with the arrival of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Taipei on Tuesday, with Chinese hackers likely to blame.
On Tuesday, the Presidential Office’s Web site was taken offline for about 20 minutes following a distributed denial of service attack, in which multiple computers are focused on a single target in an attempt to take it offline.
The government’s official English-language portal and Web sites of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of National Defense and Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport were also targeted, causing short shutdowns from Tuesday to Friday.
On Wednesday, display screens behind the cashiers at some 7-Eleven convenience stores abruptly changed to a message calling Pelosi a “warmonger” and saying “get out of Taiwan.”
A public display screen at a train station showed a message calling Pelosi’s visit “a severe provocation to the motherland” and “the great China will be united” in simplified Chinese characters.
On Thursday, the Kaohsiung Environmental Protection Bureau’s Web site was changed to show China’s national flag.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Joanne Ou (歐江安) said that the government’s English portal and the foreign ministry’s Web sites had since Tuesday detected massive attacks from Internet protocol addresses in China, Russia and other places, with up to 17 million requests per minute reported.
Minister Without Portfolio Audrey Tang (唐鳳) — who on Friday was announced as the first minister of digital affairs — said that the volume of cyberattacks on government Web sites on Tuesday was unprecedented, exceeding 15,000 gigabits in a day, about 23 times more than the previous record.
The APT 27 hacker group, a China-based group that Western governments suspect is behind several attacks on companies and state agencies, on Wednesday released a YouTube video saying that it would conduct “a special cyberoperation against Taiwan,” including “the Taiwan government and all infrastructure” to oppose the provocation by Pelosi’s visit, although the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to comment on the issue.
The cyberactivity, along with Beijing’s unprecedented military drills, are at first glance a furious response to Pelosi’s visit, but they also seem to be a show of its military power to invade or blockade Taiwan, indicating what China’s “hybrid warfare” might look like if it were to launch a full-scale invasion of Taiwan.
Although the Cabinet said that the operations of government agencies and transportation networks were not affected by the cyberattacks, the incidents should not be overlooked, as obstruction of public-government communication and the spread of disinformation can erode public trust in the government.
The government should conduct a cybersecurity review of its critical agencies and key infrastructure — such as power plants, electric grids, pipelines, telecommunications services and transportation networks — to make sure they are not vulnerable to more sophisticated and damaging cyberattacks.
It should also consider “crowdsourcing” cybersecurity experts by offering rewards for people to test, discover and report security vulnerabilities in government systems.
Moreover, the government should urge the private sector to remain watchful, step up their cyberdefenses and immediately report incidents, as data from the past few years suggest that cyberattacks will continue to increase.
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