Cyber Rattling

This week the international media will descend on a concrete-walled police-academy auditorium nestled in the suburban hills outside Taipei. It's the digital nerve center for the Taiwan Election Commission--and beginning Saturday, millions of votes for Taiwan's next president will be tallied there. But the election won't be the only competition of interest to the Taipei government. Behind the scenes another battle may be raging--this one between Taiwanese defense-ministry computer specialists (stationed at five command centers around the island) and "patriotic" mainland saboteurs. Taiwan is concerned that "red hackers," as they call themselves, could try to disrupt the island's computer networks--and spoil the election. Hunched over high-speed terminals, Taiwan's cyberwatchdogs will be searching for the Internet equivalent of "Reds under the bed." They'll scrutinize incoming Internet data packets for possible trouble--e-mail "bombs," viruses and clandestine Chinese attempts to crack computer passwords at government Web sites. The Taiwanese are ready for anything. "We want the Election Commission to treat this like a military exercise," said a senior Taiwanese defense-ministry official. "We're deeply concerned."

During its 50-year conflict with Taiwan, Beijing has often tried to intimidate its cross-strait rival with war games. Before Taiwan's last presidential election, in 1996, China fired missiles near the island. This year China has threatened to invade Taiwan should it delay reunification talks indefinitely. But even as the mainland rattles its traditional sabers, China's tech-happy mandarins have become enthralled by the concept of cyberwarfare. Strategists say that in an age when computers control nearly everything, the acquisition of digital firepower has become increasingly important. So far the weapons are mostly malicious software code that can destroy, steal or wreak havoc with vital data on military or communications networks. In the war of the future, military hackers on each side could attempt to paralyze banking systems, transportation and communications networks--without ever firing a missile. Right now Taiwan would bring superior info power to what wags call But as always, China is rushing to catch up. In a speech last week President Jiang Zemin identified Internet technology as the next great development in war and peace. "Digital warfare" will be a vital part of future conflicts, Jiang said--and the mainland "must not lag behind."

That has Taipei worried. Taiwan's Defense minister has warned publicly that China's computer-warfare capabilities could surpass Taipei's by 2010. Military analysts on the island say that the People's Liberation Army has already conducted "live fire" drills using computer viruses in various military regions, including the one nearest Taiwan. Two PLA colonels recently caused a sensation with their book titled "Unlimited Warfare." In it they endorse the concept of Internet dirty tricks--including the publication of an enemy leader's sexual habits on the Web. They suggest that if Beijing had used some information warfare (I-war) tactics against Taiwan in 1996, in addition to firing missiles, the disruptive impact on the island "might have been much greater." Beyond that, the Army officers assert that "hackers could be the heroes of the next war." Liu Jianwei, a PLA lieutenant colonel and author of a popular book on information technology titled "Breaking Out of the Trap," agrees. "In the near future, I-war will enter the mainstream," he told NEWSWEEK.

At the moment, China lacks computer muscle. Beijing is more concerned with defending itself from hacker attacks than launching them against others. In a recent official survey of 635 government Web sites, 80 percent were found vulnerable to hacking. By and large, red hackers are nationalistic twentysomethings with insomnia--and private agendas only. But they are sophisticated. Since 1998 they've responded to perceived international insults by attacking Web sites in Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, the United States and other NATO countries.

The red hackers launched a blitzkrieg against Japan earlier this year. After participants at a right-wing rally in Osaka denied that Japanese troops had committed atrocities during the 1937 Nanking massacre, China's computer jockeys jumped into their swivel chairs like fighter pilots. The goal: annihilate Japan's "mad dogs" with "Internet A-bombs." Thirty Japanese government Web sites were defaced--one with gruesome photos of Chinese massacre victims.

Taiwan remains the chief enemy. Last summer, after Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui declared that Taipei and Beijing should talk on a "state to state" basis--in seeming violation of the "one China" principle--China's Net warriors quickly mobilized. Hackers launched 72,000 attacks against 20 Taiwanese government Web sites in August alone; some were plastered with Chinese flags and epithets against Lee. Taiwanese military analysts say that both Chinese civilian and Army specialists took part in the attack. "It let people know that the cyberthreat is real," said Ho Chuan-te, a senior systems analyst at Taiwan's Research, Development and Evaluation Commission, a top government agency. Last week jittery Taiwanese warned of a new cyberassault when the Web site of the National Security Bureau, the island's chief intelligence agency, was hacked. The lawbreakers turned out to be locals.

For computer experts, breaking into sensitive Web sites can be relatively easy. Sitting in an apartment strewn with computer gadgets, a mainland hacker who calls himself Ccoder explains how he and a handful of friends--some barely out of their teens--took part in the August attack against Taiwan. "Someone suggested we should teach [Lee] a lesson," says Ccoder. The patriots launched their digital offensive after midnight, not long after Lee had made his incendiary "two states" remark. After 30 minutes of keyboard "probing," the red hackers found an opening--the Web site for a Taiwanese government agency. (Ccoder would not name it.) According to the Net warriors, the site's software had inherent "holes." Ccoder defaced the home page with text declaring Taiwan an "inseparable part of China." A short time later, he said, Taiwanese authorities used a "clumsy method" to repel the attacks, by denying access to all mainland Internet addresses. Still, Ccoder and his friends claim to have found 100 vulnerable sites during their digital sorties--including Taiwan's defense-ministry site--and to have actively hacked only about one fifth of them. Will Ccoder and his friends strike again? Ccoder says that in the aftermath of the August hack attack, he and his friends feel no regrets, although "as technical experts, we shouldn't get involved in politics." But then he boasts: "We can bring down Taiwan's entire Internet network by attacking its key nodes."

That's easier said than done. Taiwan has one of the most advanced computer industries. The island makes 80 percent of the world's computer motherboards--and is loaded with clever programmers. Taiwan's budget for I-war technology this year is nearly $300 million. An additional $1 million has been spent to safeguard the electoral system. Taipei made sure to keep the vote-counting network entirely "internal"--firewalls seal it off from the Election Commission's more vulnerable Web site. Even so, Chang Chia-sheng, the defense ministry's former cyber-information chief, admits that red hackers are capable of paralyzing Taiwan's networks--including the commission's vote-tabulation center--by swamping them with huge megabytes of e-mail. "But it won't be easy," he told NEWSWEEK. "We can always refuse access to our Web sites from suspicious Internet providers."

China should perhaps think twice about provoking Taiwan. Lt. Gen. Abe Lin, head of the island's defense-ministry communications and electronics bureau, asserts that Taiwan has developed some 2,000 computer viruses that could be launched against the mainland. (Sources say that China's central bank is a prime target.) That is no idle threat. Ten years ago a civilian virus named Bloody, or 6/4, was launched from Taiwan to protest the Tiananmen massacre. Michelangelo, a notorious 1992 global virus, was created by a Taiwanese firm. Last April Chinese computer users got a taste of one destructive Taiwanese bug. A Taiwanese keyboard wizard named Chen Ing-hau conceived a PC bug dubbed Chernobyl, which crashed hard drives on 360,000 mainland computers. Chen was doing his mandatory military service at the time. Acquaintances at Xlinux, a firm where Chen now works, say that Chernobyl was released "accidentally," and that Chen helped Taiwanese authorities neutralize it. There were rumors that the Taiwanese military wanted to recruit Chen, but after the story leaked the government denied it.

The PLA, lagging behind in the digital game, may start enlisting wild-eyed programming hobbits as cybermercenaries in future I-wars. With techno-fever escalating on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, the line between civilian and military resources is starting to blur. PLA author Liu Jianwei personally believes that "China should and must train young hackers who can shoulder the responsibility for cyberwar." Many experts are already pitching in to help the mother country. Fang Zenan, a civilian artificial-intelligence specialist at Sanda Co., is developing more advanced computer "routers" for the Beijing government's communications networks. Fang made headlines last November when he publicly invited global hackers to attack and disable his locally produced router. Anyone who succeeded would win $12,000. A massive, three-day hacking spree ensued--but no one succeeded.

For the moment, threats of information warfare on both sides of the strait are mostly talk. PLA officer Liu admits that in the art of cyberwar, psyching out your enemy matters as much as building, buying or creating weapons. He quotes Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist who wrote "The Art of War" in the fourth century. "Warfare is full of tricks," he says. "What you say and what you do are not necessarily the same." While all-out information warfare seems a ways off, the age of cyber rattling has just begun.