Cyberattacks on Democratic Taiwan Set to Rise Ahead of President's Inauguration


2020-05-07
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china-gasstation-050720.jpg A CPC Corp. gas station is shown in Taiwan in an undated photo.
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Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen approaches her second inauguration later this month amid malware attacks on two of the island's major petrochemical companies that are believed to have come from China.

Security officials on the democratic island, which China has threatened to annex by force, say recent malware attacks on state-owned oil refiner CPC Corp and privately owned Formosa Petrochemical Corp could have been timed as Tsai approaches the end of her first term as president, the island's Central News Agency (CNA) reported.

An initial investigation by Taiwan's National Security Bureau traced the attacks to IP addresses in China and Russia, the agency reported.

CPC was forced to temporarily halt its electronic payments system on Monday, disrupting a payment card system that motorists use to pay for fuel.

At Formosa Petrochemical, an employee's computer was infected with a virus, but no data was lost and company operations were not affected, the report said, adding that investigators from the ministry of justice are continuing to investigate the two attacks.

The CNA cited a security service source as saying that the attack could be a warm-up ahead of Tsai's second inauguration on May 20, and said more attacks could be in the offing.

Tsai was re-elected by a landslide last November amid growing threats from Beijing over possible military action to annex the island.

Tsai defeated China's preferred candidate in the poll, garnering more than 57 percent of the total vote after she vowed to defend the island's way of life against threats, infiltration, and saber rattling by China to win a second term in office.

She is now riding high in public opinion polls--with nearly 75 percent support--after her administration's deft handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

A recent telephone survey by the New Taiwan National Policy Think Tank from from April 25-28, showed that some 94.3 percent of respondents supported the Taiwan government's closure of incoming flights from the central city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus first emerged.

Widespread public support


Chen Li-Fu, assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Informatics at Taiwan's Aletheia University, said the government's testing and isolation of inbound passengers, its stepping up of mask manufacturing to meet public demand, and its investment in a coronavirus vaccine had won it widespread support at home.

"It's not only the pandemic [that contributed], but it is a crucial factor," Chen said. "If they get the pandemic right, people will pay much less attention to any other flaws."

A ministry of defense official told Wang Ting-yu, a lawmaker for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), in the Legislative Yuan on Wednesday that the army had all of the information regarding the recent cyberattacks.

"The army doesn't analyze malware, and the usual method of attack is via mobile devices and social engineering," defense ministry undersecretary Tsao Jin-ping told Wang.

"The army will be strengthening our defenses in those two areas."

CPC confirmed the attack in a statement on its website.

"Security personnel immediately interrupted the network and conducted a blanket check after discovering the [hacker attack]," the statement said. "[We are] checking our records to confirm the source of the attack."

"CPC has recorded this incident as a benchmark for future security improvements, and ... will ntroduce a more stringent detection system to protect the rights and interests of our customers," it said.

'Stress-testing'

Wang Chih-sheng, secretary general of the China Asia-Pacific Elite Exchange Association, said he believes that China is "stress-testing" Taiwan ahead of the inauguration ceremony.

"Taiwan is and will continue to be the top target for the Chinese Communist Party's cyber-army, both in the medium and long term," Wang told RFA. "It's particularly easy for them to launch attacks on cybersecurity and via fake news."

Military expert Chyi Le-yee said there are still concerns that some attacks may have already deployed without anyone noticing.

"The worst thing is to be hacked without knowing it," Chyi told RFA. "The number of attacks on Taiwan has increased a lot recently, but most of them have been detected. Our focus is now on the undetected malware."

He said Chinese military hackers tend to focus on technology, aerospace, satellite, telecoms, and scientific research as targets, and often spend a long time gaining a foothold in a system before using access.

Reported by Chung Kuang-cheng for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Hwang Chun-mei for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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