Taiwanese under siege from blitz of Chinese cyberattacks

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A Chinese flag and a crossed Taiwan flag appear on the homepage of a hacked Taiwan government website, with lines reading "Taiwan is inalienable from China". Photo: Handout

Taiwan has admitted that cyber attacks from China are taking a toll on the island’s digital infrastructure, with government computer systems now subjected to as many as 40 million incidents each month.

The Department of Cyber Security (DCS) revealed earlier this week that there were 288 successful attacks from Beijing’s state-sponsored apparatus and affiliated groups in 2017. Targeting servers and intranets in civil, military and research departments, the incidents were mostly categorized as Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs).

DCS head Chien Hung-wei told Central News Agency that there were between 20 million and 40 million attacks each month, in addition to billions of probing actions made by hackers looking for weaknesses.

He said the overwhelming majority of cyberattacks were level one or level two incidents, the least serious categorization, and had resulted in unauthorized changes to web pages or other minor damage.

But the government’s digital domains were also infiltrated by 10 level three attacks, which means they might have compromised sensitive and classified data stored on the affected systems.

“The increasing precision of Chinese attacks is a matter of concern for Taiwan”

“The increasing precision of Chinese attacks is a matter of concern for Taiwan”

Chinese hackers are said to route their attacks through servers in the US and European countries like Russia, as well as other nations, which makes it difficult to identify their point of origin. However, Taiwanese technicians are able to identify specific patterns, traits and even styles of coding that are typical of Chinese hackers. 

Taiwan is often used as a testing ground for new hacking tools or techniques before their deployment against targets in other nations, Chien said in a filing to the island’s legislature. As a result, hackers from countries like North Korea and Russia were also highly active.

In one recent incident, a Taiwanese cabinet official received an e-mail containing an embedded virus that was designed to penetrate the government’s internal networks. It arrived the day he was sworn in.

The home page of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party was hacked in 2016, and visitor profiles were sent to cyber espionage groups in China. It is even rumored that President Tsai Ing-wen’s personal        e-mail account has come under attack, though it is not clear if any information was stolen.  

At one time her advisors suggested that her computer be disconnected altogether from the internet because it contains sensitive information. 

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Taiwanese servicemen attend a cybersecurity training session. Photo: Central News Agency

In June last year Tsai established the Information Communication Electronic Force Command, which was the world’s first independent military cyber command.

Taipei Times also noted that Taipei was “sharing” information with Japan and the US on its investigations into attacks, cyber espionage and major data breaches. 

Taiwan was ranked second in Asia behind South Korea for the number of APT attacks on high-value “verticals” in a 2014 survey by American cybersecurity firm FireEye. High-value verticals are defined as armed forces and government sites, and high-technology industries.

The choice of targets reflects the priority that China places on cyber espionage against the island.

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