Taiwan: Chinese Virus Stole Secret Files
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
A Chinese computer virus grabbed secret data from a Taiwanese colonel’s home computer and sent it off to the mainland, officials with the Ministry of National Defense (MND) announced April 10.
Officials said the colonel, who was assigned to the National Defense University, had loaded a USB thumb drive with classified files concerning the upcoming annual Han Kuang 23 military exercises and the Po Sheng C4ISR upgrade program. He plugged the drive into his home computer, which had been infected by a virus when the colonel visited a Chinese Web site. The virus sent the files to China.
The officer is facing disciplinary action and potential criminal charges, MND officials said. Several generals are also facing disciplinary action.
The MND has warned the military to look out for more such thefts and attempts.
China is believed to have organized teams of hackers — official estimates quoted in local media run to as many as 6,000 people — to attack the computers of Taiwan and pro-Taiwan countries such as the United States.
“The media has reported that China is building ‘people’s cyber warfare’ units,” a Taiwan cross-strait military affairs expert said. “It is likely that they are mobilizing talented computer people around China under the banner of nationalism to organize hacker units, and it is reported that every province has these kinds of units.”
Beyond that, there are believed to be far more private individuals and small nongovernmental groups who do the same for malicious reasons or to satisfy nationalistic motivations.
The attacks can merely harass — filling inboxes with spam, vandalizing Web sites or slowing computers with viruses. But they can also harm, stealing information from computers or placing disinformation in them.
One Taiwan intelligence officer said the military needs to bring in professional computer specialists, but has been reluctant to do so.
“Taiwan’s real experts are in the civilian sector, but there is no security clearance system and not enough incentives to bring them in,” the officer said. “And the leadership will not take risks to do that. The key to succeed is creativity, boldness and taking risks.”
Is Taiwan Safe for U.S. Secrets?
In the United States, there have been calls to stop providing sensitive information and technology to Taiwan due to lax security.
Some would like to improve ties with Beijing by cutting off arms to Taiwan, said one former U.S. defense official.
“In U.S. policy circles, certain players look for any excuse to deny Taiwan certain capabilities due to concerns over U.S.-PRC [People’s Republic of China] relations,” he said.
“The ‘don’t transfer X to Taiwan because the place is crawling with spies’ or the ‘China will take Taiwan and we’ll lose our crown jewels’ arguments tend to be pushed by pro-Beijing panda-huggers who, perhaps subconsciously, grasp for any excuse to block U.S. legal mandates under the Taiwan Relations Act.”
One former intelligence official with the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto U.S. embassy, said Chinese spies have penetrated Taiwanese society at all levels.
“Many of us suspect deep penetration. Too many of Taiwan’s agents abroad have been compromised and terminated in recent years,” the official said. “That is a solid indicator of trouble. It’s a tough business, especially when the opposition is large and powerful with a lot of resources, and you do not enjoy the full support of your own people.”
This plays into Beijing’s hands, a U.S. government official said.
Separate Taiwan, U.S.
“One of the primary objectives of the PRC is to reduce U.S.-Taiwan security interactions. What better way to do that than to have the U.S. stop on our own due to security concerns,” the official said. “I’ve seen Taiwan media highlight every little security event as a demonstration of PRC’s penetration of the Taiwan military. Some even suggest the entire military is penetrated.
“Several Taiwan media companies are in the service of the PRC,” the U.S. government source argued. “As they report stories, other medias pick it up. All of sudden, we have a huge issue on our hands. It affects U.S. decisions to release things [arms sales] to Taiwan, some of which are items with critical impact on Taiwan’s defense.”
The government official said Chinese hackers are not just Taiwan’s problem.
“We, the U.S., are under the same cyber attack as Taiwan,” he said. “You would be amazed at how many viruses and worms are discovered in U.S. government computers each year. How much information is flowing out of U.S. government computers each day? I am not sure if it is even possible to keep track.”
The former U.S. defense official said the United States has done little to help Taiwan deal with hacker attacks.
“If there is a concern over penetration and illicit transfer, has anyone bothered to help Taiwan address the issues through a technology security safeguard program?” the official said. “The U.S. State Department has one — I’m not aware of anyone pushing it. To what extent is the FBI engaged with counterparts in Taiwan?”
Sources said that Taiwan has little contact with regional FBI officials in Asia due to Taiwan’s quasi-diplomatic status and the FBI’s obsession with terrorism.