Beijing’s Evolving Cognitive Warfare Tactics Target Taiwan Ahead of Elections

As Taiwan approaches its upcoming presidential and legislative elections, authorities are sounding the alarm over increasingly sophisticated cognitive warfare tactics deployed by Beijing. These tactics involve hackers targeting network devices to spread disinformation and manipulate public opinion, with several of these cyberattacks traced back to Hong Kong.

In recent years, cognitive warfare strategies against Taiwan have undergone a significant transformation. Initially, they involved disseminating disinformation through crude messages using simplified Chinese characters and slang during the COVID-19 pandemic. Later, nearly 1,500 social media accounts were utilized to spread false news in the lead-up to local elections last year, according to sources familiar with the matter.

This year, foreign actors have adopted new methods, focusing on hacking Internet of Things (IoT) devices in Taiwan that use weak passwords to propagate disinformation while appearing to originate from a Taiwanese source. The hackers aim to gain control of these devices and use them to publish misleading messages through a target’s social media accounts. They then attempt to delete connection records to conceal the true source of the disinformation.

These cyberattacks are perceived as an attempt to sow discord and division within Taiwan, intensifying political conflicts. Investigators delving into these hacking cases have identified Hong Kong as a crucial hub for launching cyberattacks against Taiwan. Major disinformation campaigns have been linked to this region.

For instance, an incident involving online posts suggesting officials had smuggled cigarettes during the president’s trip to Central America in April was traced back to a hacked router in a Kaohsiung motel. Using an Internet protocol address in Hong Kong, a hacker accessed a Facebook account and took control of two accounts on the website, posting altered cigarette purchase orders.

Similarly, rumors in April claiming that Chinese missiles had breached Taiwan’s airspace were found to have originated in Hong Kong. A foreign actor hacked into a router of an international shipping company in Taoyuan through a device in Hong Kong, posting about the missiles on a Taiwanese-owned Professional Technology Temple (PTT) bulletin board system account.

In response to these growing threats, the Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office has formed an investigation team to focus on major national disinformation cases. Local district prosecutors’ offices will handle other cases, with dedicated chief prosecutors assigned in the six special municipalities to address these matters.

To mitigate the impact of disinformation on the upcoming elections, the Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau is urging citizens to take precautions. This includes deleting unused social media accounts, updating IoT devices, and using strong passwords. Additionally, individuals are encouraged to verify online information carefully before sharing it and to refrain from spreading unverified content. As Taiwan prepares for its elections, the battle in cyberspace intensifies, emphasizing the need for vigilance and cybersecurity measures.

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