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Interview

Taiwan digital minister warns of China's 5G 'Trojan horse'

Audrey Tang says Taiwan acted in 2014 to keep Huawei out of systems

Taiwan's Digital Minister Audrey Tang speaks to Nikkei Asian Review at her office in the Executive Yuan in Taipei. (Photo by Toshiyuki Kumagai)

TAIPEI -- Putting Chinese equipment in a country's core telecom infrastructure is akin to inviting a Trojan horse into the network, Taiwan's digital minister told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"There's no such thing as pure private companies in China. From the perspective of the PRC, the ruling party can change your leader whenever the situation is intense," Audrey Tang, a hacker-turned-cabinet member, said in an interview in her office at the Executive Yuan in Taipei.

"If you include them [China-linked companies] in the infrastructure then you have to be very careful every time you update the system, as that could make the network vulnerable to allowing a Trojan horse inside the system."

Tang, 39, said the people of Taiwan, a democratically governed island that China sees as part of its territory, saw the risks of using equipment made by the likes of Huawei and ZTE six years ago, when these tech giants were little known outside China.

"While the world is talking about whether or not to include China-linked companies in 5G infrastructure, we already did that in the 4G era," Tang said.

In 2014, the Beijing-friendly administration of former President Ma Ying-jeou had to contend with the biggest demonstrations in Taiwan in decades, when activists occupied the country's legislature for nearly a month. Tang helped set up a live-broadcasting system for protesters who demanded that the government withdraw a draft bill on a services trade agreement with China.

That was also the year Taiwan began rolling out its 4G network. Tang recalled that the National Communication Commission and the National Security Council heeded the activists' demands not to allow Chinese companies' equipment inside the network.

Taiwan's state-backed Chunghwa Telecom launched commercial services on the island's 5G network on June 30, using Ericsson technology. Taipei has effectively excluded Huawei from its ultrafast internet system.

"We are happy to see that now countries like the U.S. are having such discussions to evaluate the risks," Tang said.

The U.K. on Tuesday reversed its policy on Huawei with a decision to phase out the company's equipment from the country's 5G network before 2027. This follows the U.S. imposing additional sanction on the Chinese tech giant.

Germany, another big market for Huawei, is also heatedly debating the issue. Deutsche Telekom, one of the leading carriers in European market, said last week it implements a multi-vendor strategy, which includes 25% of technology purchased from European and Chinese vendors. DT said it completed its 5G radio access network contracts with both Ericsson and Huawei.

Huawei rejected Tang's claims.

"Huawei Technologies is not a state-owned company, but a purely private one, fully owned by its employees," the company said in a statement. "Huawei Technologies is neither dependent on the Chinese Communist Party nor on the Chinese security apparatus. There is no factual evidence for [allegations to the contrary] and we strongly reject them."

ZTE did not respond to Nikkei's request for comment by time of publication.

Tang said it is crucial to have a trustworthy network environment to protect personal data, referring to Beijing's recent imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong. Many Hong Kongers are rushing to remove or alter their digital footprints on social media.

"There's actually not much you can do [to protect your personal data] if you are in a hostile telecom networking environment that it is trying everything it can to access your data," she said. "The best and the most secure way is probably not using digital devices at all, and even if you have to use a device, don't send any signals or messages," the minister said. She added that "erasing your digital footprint probably will not work if the operators want to frame you."

Taiwan's relations with China have deteriorated since President Tsai Ing-wen, a Beijing skeptic, was first elected in 2016, making the island a frequent target of cyberattacks. The government says Taiwan is hit an average of 30 million times a month.

As ties between Taiwan and the U.S. have warmed, Washington and Taipei held their first cyber offensive and defensive exercises late last year. They also share knowledge and host workshops on fighting disinformation.

Although Taiwan is not formally part of the "Five Eyes" -- the intelligence alliance of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K., and the U.S. -- the island can still share cybersecurity intelligence with other countries.

"There's a spectrum between being completely out of the Five Eyes and participating in the alliance," Tang said. "From the perspective of cybersecurity, if there's an imminent threat that targets Taiwan, and we find digital traces of the target, we could share [that] with the other countries as they might be the next target."

Taiwan's Digital Minister Audrey Tang (Photo by Toshiyuki Kumagai)

Tang, the youngest minister in Taiwan's history, is a renowned hacker, programmer and entrepreneur. She has been praised as a key figure in the fight against COVID-19 for her role in quickly developing systems using open data and digital tools to slow the spread of the virus.

She has teamed up with many developers to roll out multiple tools and apps that incorporate big data and national health ID cards to speed up the distribution of masks and economic stimulus coupons. Tang's efforts, together with those of other ministries, have helped Taiwan win international plaudits for its success in containing COVID-19.

Despite Tang describing herself as "conservative anarchist," she became a government consultant on transparency and cybersecurity initiatives in 2014.

She appears to have a unique view of the world. She speaks at bullet-train speed, with few pauses and idiosyncratic humor. Dressed in a shirt by Taiwanese designer Apu Jan and black culottes designed by Issey Miyake, she keeps a virtual reality headset in her office.

Despite having a formal position in the government, Tang actively participates in the G0V platform -- a virtual social-networking community of coders, designers, activists, and other professionals who advocate for information transparency. She is responsible for maintaining an online dictionary called MoeDict, or Ministry of Education Dictionary, that collects tens of thousands Chinese, Taiwanese and Haka idioms, proverbs and words. She is also an active Twitter user and often answers the public's questions on social media.

"On the slack channel of G0V there are currently 7,842 people... And on the specific COVID-19 channel, there are 574 people... all the apps to track masks' availability, and other things are all developed with support from these so-called digital civil engineers," Tang said, checking the live data on an iPad Pro. "I just received a warning note this morning from a white-hat hacker pointing out that there are some bugs on the online dictionary system."

Tang read various classical works of literature before she was 5 years old, could solve complicated math equations by the age of 6, and started to program at 8. She dropped out of junior high school, as the curriculum did not fit her needs, and began educating herself with the support of her mother, Lee Ya-ching, a former senior editor at several Taiwanese media outlets.

At the age of 14, Tang co-founded a computer book publisher with friends and later developed a search engine. She went on to become an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley and was a consultant for renowned tech companies such as Apple.

"I never thought people should be the same as everyone else... Everyone is a unique existence and it's an illusion that you want to be the same as others," Tang said.

"If you feel you could not get along with your peers in physical schools, you could always look beyond that direction, and you can turn around and look to the other side of the planet. Maybe you will find a whole new universe... the more unique you are, the more contribution you will make to society."

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