Is Taiwan becoming a surveillance state? Privacy advocates sound alarm
Legislators hold landmark hearing on digital privacy after a report shows authorities sought data from social networks and communications companies for almost 70,000 clients
Big Brother is everywhere. And Taiwan, which claims to be a staunch advocate of personal privacy in stark contrast to the mainland, is no exception.
According to a recent report by the Taiwan Association for Human Rights (TAHR), the self-ruled island has violated digital human rights by quietly conducting communications surveillance over the past few years to obtain social networking content and metadata, ostensibly to help investigate crimes.
In the 2015-16 period covered by the report, government authorities – mostly security and police units – made close to 70,000 demands for social networking and digital service providers to reveal the content and parties involved in the communications, as well as the location tracking and personal information of their clients – all without the clients’ knowledge.
In addition to criminal investigations, the authorities said the surveillance was needed to counter the growing threat from mainland China, which has been staging military drills and flipping several of the island’s diplomatic allies.
Even so, critics remain concerned about the infringement on citizens’ privacy.
In the island’s first hearing last week to address “digital human rights” in the face of growing communications surveillance by the government, legislator Yu Mei-nu, of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, expressed concern about the authorities prying into the secrets and private communications of online users.
“There is no law specifically regulating this kind of surveillance and protecting the privacy of the internet users in Taiwan,” Yu told the hearing, citing the TAHR report.
Recent years have offered brief glimpses of Taiwan’s growing surveillance state. In No Place to Hide, his 2014 book about surveillance and the reach of the US National Security Agency, former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden said Taiwan had accepted US$200,000 from Washington in 2012 to buy and develop advanced surveillance technologies that could tap private communications of residents.
Snowden also wrote that Taiwan had cooperated with the “Five Eyes” intelligence partners – the five English-speaking countries of the US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada – for intelligence exchanges with Washington.
Late last year, news agencies reported that the police were pursuing a NT$500 million programme (US$16.2 million) to develop a special app to increase its digital communications surveillance power.
Seeing the trend grow unchecked, some critics even said this could lead to the return of the “thought police” – a reference to the now defunct Taiwan Garrison command during the island’s period of martial law, between 1949 and 1987, which silenced dissenting voices and censored any writings and speeches against the government.
Currently, the Communications Protection and Surveillance Act protects the Taiwanese people’s freedom of confidential communications from unlawful infringement, as well as to ensure national security and maintain social order. But such protection extends only to wire and wireless telecommunications that send, store, transport or receive symbols, text, images, sounds or other messages through the use of telecommunications facilities.
The act also extends protection to mail and written correspondence as well as speech and oral communication. But according to digital rights advocates, there is no mention of any such communications through digital devices.
Referring to Taiwan’s growing digital surveillance programme, and the 70,000 requests for information about account users in the two years covered by the TAHR report, Ho Ming-syuan, the report’s lead author, told the hearing that “a great number of device users had not been informed about the surveillance demands and were left in the dark”.
“Most authorities simply skipped the legal procedures by writing to the operators, asking for the information they wanted,” he said.
Ho added that there was no indication that the government had made excessive demands of social networking operators – including Facebook or the Japanese messaging app Line – to remove certain posts by their users. But, he said, there was a need for the authorities to remain transparent as they obtained digital content and metadata from operators.
All local operators cooperated with the authorities, turning over the contents of its users’ accounts when asked, he said; businesses like Facebook and Line whose parent companies are based outside Taiwan did not entirely comply.
Also at the hearing, Chiu Ee-ling, the association’s secretary general, said that though the government must maintain security and order in Taiwan, it was equally necessary to maintain a balance between the law and personal rights.
Yu said she hoped the authorities could either revise the law or protect digital privacy. She also called on the authorities to stay as transparent as possible about their demands on service providers and the purpose of using that information.
Such revisions, she said, should include periodically releasing transparency reports on government requests for personal data; the principles for information collection units to notify or not notify the party concerned; and the formation of an independent supervisory mechanism to verify that such surveillance was conducted in line with legal procedures.
But Ma Hao, section chief of the fifth department at the National Security Bureau, told the hearing that it would be impossible for the bureau to make public how the data was used, because of national security concerns.
“Revelation would create more obstacles for us, especially in the face of the threat from [mainland China],” Ma said, adding that the bureau would brief members of parliament about what it had done, but would never go public.
A government investigator who spoke on condition of anonymity told the South China Morning Post that the security authorities did not need to entirely depend on the operators of social networks or communications devices to get the information they sought.
“They have other ways too, including planting spyware, to hack into the phone and computer networks of an individual who is under investigation,” he said.
“This is one of the methods they use to determine if a person is allegedly spying for China or has any illicit dealings that would damage the national interest.”
With such aid, he claimed, the security authorities had uncovered some espionage rings that involved Taiwanese spying for the mainland.