IScann in Perspective with Hsiao-pin Yu

Over the last four years, Trump did many unprecedented things for Taiwan, ranging from the phone call with President Tsai Ing-wen, high-level visits, approval of a slew of weapons sales (some of them quite sensitive), to high-visibility mil-to-mil interactions. For decades after the US terminated its diplomatic relationship, Taiwan had been told that everything must be “unofficial”, “low profile”, and “substance over symbolism”, especially when it came to military interactions and high-level visits. Regardless of his reasoning or whether he did those things to “stick it to the Chinese”, Trump discarded long-standing, self-imposed restrictions and brought many pleasant surprises for Taiwan.

In response to China’s provocations and acts of diplomatic oppression, Taiwan has been more assertive, particularly so in the past couple of years, perhaps partly encouraged by the Trump administration’s actions. 

Back with the old

Despite his recent initiation into office, there have been early indications that Biden’s administration will not act in a similar fashion towards Taiwan as Trump did, disregarding long-standing protocols. One prime example of this is, instead of Tsai’s phone call with Biden, Taiwan got a call between Representative Bi-khim Hsiao and Biden’s adviser. Now, Taiwan’s foremost concern is whether Biden will return to an Obama-era policy and the other long-standing rules and restrictions that were in place before Trump. It is highly likely that it will be very much the case, however perhaps only to a certain degree.  

Those precedents that Trump has set freed many people from the old self-imposed restrictions when dealing with Taiwan. Trump has given the Biden administration much more latitude to manage the US-China-Taiwan relationship, leaving behind tools and leverageable opportunities that the Biden administration could easily inherit. There will unquestionably be a variable of give and take during the process of mending its relationship with China, which the Biden administration can pick and choose from. Taiwan will most likely lose some ground in this process, however, it will be from a much higher baseline.

The mil-to-mil interactions will probably continue, and perhaps even strengthen in the Biden administration due to the significant US national security and strategic interest that is involved. However, the US may want to keep these interactions on a low-profile and focus more on substance (training, logistics, personnel, readiness, for instance) instead of on high-profile arms sales or high visibility visits, which is actually more important and much better for Taiwan to strengthen its self-defense capability.

The importance of online self-defense

Intelligence and counterintelligence, unlike actual armed conflicts, are on-going during peacetime. China has been well known for its espionage and hacking activities against almost every country, and as a result, counterintelligence has become a staple in a country’s defense.

China has been extremely active in cyber espionage for many years and the level of sophistication in their TTP (Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures) is among the best in the world. Most countries, particularly in the Indopacific region and including those believed to be high-tech countries like Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan, are still very vulnerable to Chinese cyber espionage and intelligence operations. It is very unlikely that these countries can implement effective cyber CI programs against the Chinese, because it requires an operation that combines expertise in  information technology, intelligence and counterintelligence, human behaviors, and strategic planning. There are very few people who have enough knowledge and experience in all those areas to form and direct a team to do the job. 

Furthermore, often due to a lack of knowledge on the topic, political leaders tend to simply assign anything with the word “cyber” to an engineer or mathematician, who most often only understands a small part of it. People who do have an intelligence background, on the other hand, rarely understand enough about cyber security to be effective in this undertaking. Worse yet, it has become even more commonplace for some governments, under the influence of the myth that someone in a high position automatically can handle anything, to simply give the job to senior bureaucrats or military officers who lack the suitable knowledge and expertise on the topic. 

With more US involvement and an abandonment of long-standing protocols and restrictions, Taiwan has quickly become more assured in countering Chinese military cyber activities. This, however, has led to Taiwan potentially becoming a sensitive trigger that may or may not lead to an increase in the potential for war. 

Taiwan’s security bill

As a reaction to an increase in cyber espionage and a need for strengthened nation-wide cyber security, Taiwan has proposed a new cyber security bill. Supposedly titled, the Technological Surveillance Act (科技侦查法Ke Ji Zhen Cha Fa), the bill is currently under review.

Like most countries, Taiwan’s law enforcement has been struggling to deal with criminals that use end-to-end encryption tools such as LINE, WhatsApp, and WeChat to communicate with each other. The Technological Surveillance Act would therefore allow law enforcement agencies to utilise hacking tools and techniques to surveil and monitor potential criminals. This would include planting malwares and backdoors in targets’ computers and smartphones.

If the law is passed and is strictly used only for fighting cyber crimes or derailing espionage, it would be significantly beneficial to the safety of Taiwan’s society. However, on the other hand, it is fraught with the potential for violations of privacy, abuses soley for political purposes, and even possible manipulation by the enemy.

This act essentially provides a sound legal basis for law enforcement to use sophisticated hacking tools and techniques to do its job. It will also most likely become the catalyst in a surge of high-end and well-funded criminals or spies who may proceed to hire teams or consultants to counter the technological surveillance.

The personal impact 

The implementation of this surveillance bill would also have a significant impact on the residents of Taiwan. Perhaps the most pressing concern is the scope for corruption. If the police can plant a backdoor in your phone or computer, they can also plant “evidence” of crimes you did not commit. The “evidence” would be admissible in court.

Secondly, once the law enforcement and the intelligence community acquire the tools to plant backdoors in people’s electronic devices, the same tools could potentially be compromised by the enemy, allowing access to valuable information. Information that in the wrong hands could be not only detrimental but harmful to Taiwan’s citizens or organizations.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, Taiwan is still undeniably divided between Green (pro-independence) and Blue (China-friendly). This in itself poses questions worth asking: would this law be (mis)used in monitoring private citizens’ chats about political issues and infringe on the freedom of speech? Or could it become a powerful tool for political surveillance against opposing parties? Only time will tell. 

Interested in more information?

Contact Managing Director Andrew Vasko at Andrew.Vasko@iscanngroup.com

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