The new compound of the American Institute in Taiwan. Photo: Twitter

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The American Institute in Taiwan – a quasi-US embassy on the independent island – has warned of “foreign interference” in its elections, especially during the high-stakes presidential ballot early next year.

AIT director Brent Christensen told a forum in Taipei last week that cybersecurity following the launch of 5G networks and misinformation spread by “malign forces” were some of the pressing challenges of Internet governance – and Taiwan is no exception to this.

With Taiwan scheduled to hold presidential and legislative elections in January next year, the AIT has been cautioning about the impact of foreign intervention and misinformation on the polls, though the de-facto US diplomatic mission also stressed its neutral stance toward the key polls.

The backdrop is a draft Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020 passed by the US House of Representatives Permanent Committee on Intelligence at the end of June, which for the first time requires the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to report efforts by Beijing to influence elections and sway public opinion in Taiwan.

“As Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election and credible reports of foreign interference in the 2018 local elections in Taiwan demonstrate so vividly, we are in a new era,” Christensen said, calling for more attention to efforts by “malign actors” to prevent people from distinguishing fact from fiction, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported.

American Institute in Taiwan director Brent Christensen is seen with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: Central News Agency, Taiwan

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has vowed to fight China’s meddling and urged voters to inform authorities if they see any suspicious activities in the run-up to the elections.

She will also initiate legislation to outlaw China “surrogates”, with a new amendment to be tabled to the Legislative Yuan stipulating penalties for people or groups acting at the behest of Beijing.

Tsai said the legislation would clamp down on activities by individuals, groups or institutions that could undermine Taiwan’s national security by spreading Beijing’s propaganda or participating in events and junkets organized by the mainland and local governments.

Beijing backing Tsai’s KMT rival

Beijing has made no bones about its goal to help the candidate fielded by the pro-reunification Kuomintang party to unseat Tsai and end the dominance of the Democratic Progressive Party. It has set in motion a ploy to infiltrate the island – to inundating social media platforms with false information, charter flights for Taiwanese students or people doing business on the mainland, so they can vote for the KMT candidate.

Tsai said her approval rating as well as that of the DPP had regained ground lost since the island’s regional elections at the end of last year, but reminded her supporters to stay vigilant against Beijing’s war of disinformation.

At the forum, Christensen also drew into question the use of China telecommunications equipment, software and services, which, like telecoms gear and smartphones from Huawei, concerns the US and its allies.

“If China controls the 5G infrastructure, it will have the undeniable ability to steal the data that flows on these networks, and even shut down the Internet of other countries if they wanted to,” he said.

Christensen praised Taiwan’s ban of China-made telecoms equipment from its infrastructure as a “wise example” that many other countries had begun to follow.

But he also cautioned that the risks could extend to Internet of Things applications if malign actors were able to manipulate source code and software updates.

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