Taiwan: an ideal target for Chinese hackersPhoto: Reuters
Taiwan is the frontline in an emerging global battle for cyberspace, according to elite hackers in the island's IT industry, who say it has become a rehearsal area for the Chinese cyber attacks that have strained ties with the US.
The self-governing island, they say, has endured at least a decade of highly-targeted data-theft attacks that are then directed towards larger countries.
"We've seen everything," said Jim Liu, the 28-year-old founder of Lucent Sky, a Taiwanese internet security company specialising in resolving dangerous software vulnerabilities that hackers can exploit in order to gain access to a system.
"We'll see a specific attack signature here, and then six months later see the same signature in an attack on the States."
A Pentagon report in May accused China of trying to break into US defence computer networks. It followed another report in February by US computer security company Mandiant that said a secretive Chinese military unit was probably behind a series of hacking attacks that had stolen data from 100 US companies.
Beijing dismissed both reports as without foundation. But Taiwan experts say that hacking methods such as those outlined in the Mandiant report are the same kinds of security breaches that they had seen several years earlier.
Regarded by China as a renegade province it must recover, by force if necessary, it is easy to see why Taiwan might be an ideal target for Chinese hackers: it is close to the mainland, Mandarin-speaking and boasts advanced internet infrastructure.
This cyber war playing out across the narrow Taiwan Strait first came to public attention in 2003, when a Taiwanese police agency realised hackers had stolen personal data, including household registration information, from its computer system.
These attacks differed from traditional hacking attempts - where many casual hackers attempt to disrupt their targets' systems, these hackers went in stealthily, with the intention to plunder rather than destroy.
"Back then it was very rare to see these kinds of social network attacks," said hacking specialist Jeremy Chiu, a contract instructor in IT for Taiwan's intelligence agencies. "They were very, very well organised."
Other indicators, including the ease with which the hackers penetrated an email system written entirely in Chinese, painted a picture of the culprits as a large, coordinated group of mainland Chinese hackers.
"One thing that indicates government support for these attacks is just the sheer volume - how many agencies are being attacked on a daily basis," said Benson Wu, postdoctoral researcher in information technology at Taiwanese think-tank Academia Sinica and co-founder of Xecure Lab, which focuses on responding to advanced persistent threats.
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