The FBI and Department of Homeland Security released a public service advisory last Wednesday, noting how Chinese government-sponsored hackers have increased cyberattacks against the United States from early January to the present.
This U.S. government alert is a reminder that Chinese government cyberattacks have been a persistent threat against nations worldwide amid the global pandemic. As Washington looks for solutions to this security concern, it can strengthen America’s existing cybersecurity partnership with Taiwan by reorganizing cyber operation exercises, continuing intelligence sharing, and coordinating diplomacy.
The advisory said that China’s state-sponsored hackers have targeted and stolen data from U.S. universities, pharmaceutical companies, and other healthcare firms studying COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. Beyond cyberespionage, Taiwan’s Investigation Bureau reported a significant increase in China’s dissemination of COVID-19-related disinformation. The 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community already revealed Washington’s deep concern about Chinese cyber disinformation attacks on the U.S. populace.
In confronting the broader China cyber threat, Taiwan, an important U.S. security partner, has been successful in responding to Beijing’s persistent cyber operations. For instance, the Taiwanese intelligence services and nongovernmental organizations, such as the Taiwan FactCheck Center, countered China’s cyber disinformation attacks during the COVID-19 outbreak by a coordinated public campaign dispelling the fake news stories Chinese hackers planted.
Taiwan not only frustrated Beijing’s attempts to sow chaos but also regained its people’s trust, which ultimately was the foundation for the Taiwanese government’s distinct triumph in fighting the COVID-19 outbreak in its country.
Since 2001, the Taiwanese government began structuring its government and military to support a national cybersecurity protection system. In August 2016, the Taiwanese executive branch established a Department of Cybersecurity. Similarly, the Taiwanese military created the Information Communication Electronic Force Command to specialize in cyber warfare.
The government also focused on cultivating a domestic cybersecurity industry. In 2018, the Taiwanese government opened a cyber academy to address the skilled labor shortage of cybersecurity professionals. Beijing’s continuous cyberattacks provided Taiwanese software developers and cybersecurity professionals with unique insights into the structure and methodology of Chinese hackers’ malware and tactics, techniques, and procedures. This would allow Taiwanese developers to create tailor-made products and services ready to defend against China’s distinct approach.
Fortunately, the U.S. and Taiwan have already taken steps to bolster defense and cooperative mechanisms regarding cyber. This month, Taiwan shared the latest intelligence on China’s latest cyber schemes after the U.S. and the Czech Republic both experienced cyberattacks against healthcare facilities and related government agencies.
Washington and Taipei’s partnership can be further enhanced by continuing joint training operations such as the Cyber Offensive and Defensive Exercises. This U.S.-Taiwan led multinational exercise brings together 10 different governments to simulate cyberattacks against various Taiwanese government agencies and to hold discussions enabling the participating nations to exchange cyber intelligence related to these threats. Moving forward, it will be critical to regularly update the simulations in these exercises based on changing threat environments. An obvious focus amid the pandemic could be to simulate cyberattacks on healthcare and research facilities.
The U.S. and Taiwanese governments could also strengthen their cyber partnership by coordinating diplomacy. This would not only be important for strengthening multilateral cooperation on cybersecurity, but it would also help Taiwan thwart Beijing’s broader efforts to isolate Taipei on the global stage. The U.S. now has legal obligations pursuant to the TAIPEI Act of 2020 to support Taiwan in cultivating alliances and diplomatic partnerships.
Additionally, Taiwan could gain much-needed intelligence regarding cyber through closer ties with the governments of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Australia. Check Point Software Technologies, an Israeli cybersecurity company, uncovered a Chinese cyberespionage campaign collecting intelligence on South China Sea dispute issues from Australian and ASEAN government agencies. This report found these Chinese military hackers employed distinct malware and operational infrastructure never before seen in past Chinese cyberespionage attacks. Moreover, forging more cooperative security partnerships among these like-minded countries would be critical in helping these nations better understand the threat Beijing poses.
As the Chinese government remains unrelenting in its aim to seize global influence, the U.S. and allies such as Taiwan must not falter in their efforts to counter Beijing’s malign activity. Enhancing cybersecurity cooperation would not only upgrade the U.S. and Taiwan as bilateral security partners, but it would also raise much needed global awareness of the threats Beijing poses in cyberspace.
Mathew Ha is a research analyst focused on North Korea and China at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power. Follow Mathew on Twitter @MatJunsuk.