Incumbent leader Tsai Ing-wen will face off the KMT's Han Kuo-yu in January's election. Photos: Central News Agency, AFP

According to the latest survey by Taiwan United Daily News, 53% of Taiwanese voters think that hiring cyber-warriors is a severe issue during the current presidential election campaign. President Tsai Ing-wen said last week that during this period, most of the smearing and fake stories came from her Kuomintang (KMT) opponent Han Kuo-yu’s camp, adding that the government spent a lot of efforts to clarify fake news every day. A spokesman for Han’s campaign headquarters said, “At this moment there are so many cyber-warriors. How many people like Slow Yang (楊蕙如) are there exactly? Which attacks are self-motivated and which are organized? These all need to be further investigated by the police.”

The general public has for long heard about Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) cyber-warriors, whose roars and rampages on the Internet are in direct proportion to their crude and brusque rhetoric. Yang was indicted for allegedly hiring and instructing cyber-warriors to exercise spin control by manipulating fake public opinions, resulting in the suicide of diplomat Su Chii-cherng (蘇啟誠), director of the Taipei Economic and Culture Office (TECO) in Osaka. Through the suicide case, Yang was charged with directing the cyber-warriors in guiding public opinion and her downstream subordinates. And the outside circles were wondering where Yang’s money to pay the cyber-warriors came from.

This not only directly revealed the loci of the DPP cyber-warriors, but also confirmed that they were well organized and in the pay of an anonymous consortium. To this, the DPP only responded in a low key, with party spokesman Chen Jian-ming saying, “We must remember this mistake and lesson.” However, what then? Continue to unleash cyber-warriors to engage in smearing at will and stealing the fruits of democracy?

Since the rise of the DPP, it has taken on extremely political sophistry. When Tsai took office, she proclaimed “humility, humility and humility” and that the people could “pound the table” when communicating with the government. However, when the general public actually die express dissatisfaction, the government often mobilized cyber-warriors and used digital barricades. Which brings us back to the recent developments of the Yang cyber-warrior case.

Yang faces criminal charges for government subsidies fraud. However, the cyberwar tempest she created has been spreading. On December 9, the KMT legislative caucus disclosed that Yang had a group of “besties” in the central government behind her, and these “besties” helped cyber-warriors find funding from the Sports Administration under the Education Ministry, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, and state-owned enterprises, adding that they even frequently convoked coordination meetings through the office of Legislative Speaker Su Jia-chyuan.

She allegedly directed her cyber-warriors to attack TECO in Osaka, and Su Chii-cherng committed suicide because he could not bear the humiliation; Yang and her cyber-warriors have thus been prosecuted. Yet the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) not only failed to condemn this incident, but argued that no inference should be drawn that cyber-warriors caused Su’s suicide.

Utilizing cyber-warriors may, in a twisted way, enhance a lot of combativeness; once one is addicted, it will not be easy to quit. What is astonishing is that Yang’s cyber-warriors were not just a freelance on the flanks of the DPP; examining the party-government network she disbanded after Su committed suicide, it was, surprisingly, meticulously organized, with no holes unpenetrated. Nevertheless, the prosecutors only indicted Slow Yang, yet avoided the pursuit of the higher-level masterminds behind the scenes and giving the people deeper doubts and suspicions.

Taiwan has a presidential election swiftly approaching on January 11 and the fire over the cyberwar episode created by Yang has continued to spread. Recently, Tsai claimed that the smears against the diplomat mainly came from her opponent’s campaign. Han responded in a fit of rage, proclaiming that Su had committed suicide because of the attacks by the cyber-warriors.

Stopping digital attacks by rival candidates has proved impossible up to now, and only a new government deterrence strategy help fix that. An effective approach to Web security threats must, by definition, be proactive and defensive. Taiwan definitely need a better plan to deter hacker attacks in the run-up to the election. The Tsai administration needs to rethink its strategies for stopping cyberattacks and should develop a tailored approach to deterring each of its hackers related to Yang’s cluster.

The Tsai administration must aim at sparking a security mindset and take a major step to stop hackers from infiltrating the presidential election.

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Kent Wang

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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