Taiwan braced for wave of cyberattacks from mainland China ahead of local elections

Self-ruled island warns that Beijing, as well as Russia and North Korea, is using it as a testing ground before targeting US and other countries

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 September, 2018, 9:56am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 September, 2018, 10:33pm

Taiwan is bracing for an onslaught of cyberattacks from mainland China designed to undermine the president ahead of local elections in November.

Beijing, along with Russia and North Korea, may be increasingly testing out cyber hacking techniques in Taiwan before using them against the US and other foreign powers, according to the Taiwanese government.

The tests involve new malware tools mostly used to target government agencies including Taiwan’s foreign and economy ministries, said Howard Jyan, director general of its cybersecurity department.

“Based on matching patterns, sophistication and other characteristics it’s likely that most the cyberattacks come from groups supported by China,” Jyan told Bloomberg News.

“We believe the number of cyberattacks will rise before the elections. Hackers and organisations will try to intervene.”

Since taking office in May 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party have refused to recognise the Beijing government’s claim to the self-ruled island. Beijing considers the island part of its territory, to be unified by force if necessary.

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Beijing has responded with a multi-pronged effort to squeeze Tsai’s 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.

The campaign has also fuelled 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 cyber espionage 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 in 2017, Jyan said, possibly compromising sensitive and classified data. But the number of attempts was far greater: Some 20 million to 40 million were carried out each month last year, he estimated.

Servers in civil, military and research departments have been targeted, including hospital systems hacked to steal personal health information and other private data.

Beijing in turn has lashed out at Taiwan’s intelligence agencies. On Sunday it demanded Taiwan “cease infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland to avoid further harming increasingly complex and severe” relations, Xinhua reported, citing An Fengshan, spokesman for the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office. The office did not reply to Bloomberg’s questions on Taiwan’s accusations.

The Xinhua report was “fake information that sabotages cross-strait relations,” said Alex Huang, a spokesman for Tsai’s office.

Taiwan this month plans to open a government cybersecurity training programme for companies and NGOs to send their IT personnel, with grants for up to 150 students yearly. Last year, it created a military cyber command. And it has earmarked more than NT$1.6 billion (US$52 million) in next year’s budget to safeguard websites and databases most targeted by mainland cyber spies, the Taipei Times reported earlier this month.

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The National Communications Commission said Tuesday 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 death of Su Chii-cherng, a senior Japan-based diplomat, in an apparent suicide. Posts identified as originating on the mainland 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 last 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,” said Read, the firm’s head of cyber espionage analysis.

Sixty per cent of organisations 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 organisations were four times more likely to be exposed to an advanced attack than the global average of 15 per cent, it said.

Taiwan’s cyber defences are stronger than most in Southeast Asia thanks to its hi-tech expertise in computer manufacturing, according to cyber analysts. But they cannot overcome mainland China’s drive to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, which has severely hampered its ability to seek help from allies in countering the attacks.

“We need help from foreign countries, but the worsening cross-strait relations are making it more difficult for us to seek participation in Interpol,” said Tsai Tsang-po, head of Taiwan’s Criminal Investigation Bureau.

Interpol’s president, Meng Hongwei, is also a high ranking Chinese vice-minister of public security. Taiwan was forced to quit the global police agency in 1984 – when China joined the organisation – 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.