Tea Leaf Nation

Months Later, a Cyberattack Still Lingers

Months Later, a Cyberattack Still Lingers

Upon hearing that a major gas explosion had ripped through the southern Taiwan port city of Kaohsiung on August 1, killing at least 22 and injuring 270, many of the more than 1.8 million overseas Taiwanese instinctively turned to their favorite Chinese-language news websites for the latest updates. But for some, attempts to access Taiwan’s Apple Daily, a newspaper known for its sensational headlines and editorials critical of Beijing, proved futile — a lingering after-effect of the June 18 cyberattack against Apple Daily, allegedly originating in mainland China. 

In the early morning hours of June 18, cyberattacks allegedly perpetrated by mainland Chinese hackers crippled both the Hong Kong and Taiwan websites of the popular newspaper, owned by outspoken China critic and Hong Kong Next Media founder Jimmy Lai. It was the worst such attack in Apple Daily‘s history, freezing one of the island’s most popular news portals, which in July received an average of 20.2 million page views per day, for almost two and a half hours. The Broadcasting Corporation of China, a private broadcasting company once run by Taiwan’s government, reported on June 19 that the attacks were likely in response to Apple Daily’s support of pro-democracy street protests in Hong Kong, the former British colony returned to China in 1997, and a measure to allow the public to nominate candidates for its 2017 election for special administrative region chief executive — a proposal that Beijing has so far rejected.  

Since the June 18 hacking, Apple Daily has redoubled its efforts to bolster its own defenses, leaving some overseas Taiwanese still unable to view the paper’s website. In a post two days after the attacks on Facebook, Taiwan’s social network of choice, Apple Daily announced that its "website had returned to normal," warning cyber attackers that "you may be able to cripple our website, but you cannot shut our mouths." But from June 20 to July 25, many Taiwanese who live in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan complained on Apple Daily’s Facebook page that they were still unable to access the site, with some overseas users encountering "Server Not Found" messages when attempting to enter Apple Daily’s Taiwan website. Daisy Li, online director of Apple Daily, told Foreign Policy in an August 1 email that during the attack some Internet service providers "applied defensive measures to block our domains," which in some cases had not yet been lifted. This is what prevented overseas users from entering its Taiwan portal.

The residual blockages have been felt around the globe. Overseas Apple Daily readers make up between 10 and 12 percent of its total page views, according to Apple Daily‘s Li. A July 26 Apple Daily editorial, written by Jung-Shian Li, a professor at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan, a city in southern Taiwan, noted that for more than a month, his friends who work in the United States have still been "entirely unable to go online to read the Apple Daily." While the outlet is hardly the only news website in Taiwan’s vibrant and crowded media scene, it has built up a devoted following among Taiwanese both at home and oversees who delight in the newspaper’s penchant for gossipy news and salacious photos, as well as its unabashed criticism of the Chinese Communist Party.

Cyberattacks are nothing new to Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province that must someday be reunited, by force if necessary. For more than a decade, Taiwan has found itself on the front lines of a cyber battlefield increasingly dominated by China. A July 19, 2013, NBC News article reported that Beijing views Taiwan as a testing ground for cyber warfare techniques carried out by Chinese hackers before they launch large-scale assaults against other countries. The article lists three chief reasons why Taiwan makes an ideal target: the island’s advanced Internet infrastructure, a Mandarin-speaking population, and close proximity to the mainland.

For many Taiwanese, the attacks on Apple Daily and the inability of some overseas to access the outlet’s Taiwanese website collectively pose a threat to the island’s eroding press freedoms. In a June 21 editorial, the pro-Taiwan independence Liberty Times (and an Apple Daily competitor) urged Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou "not to turn a blind eye to Chinese hackers’ attacks on Taiwanese media," warning that if the government fails to respond, Chinese hackers will "rampage through Taiwan" and target any media organization or industry critical of Beijing. Li, author of the July 26 Apple Daily editorial, also echoed this sentiment, writing that overseas Taiwanese friends have openly wondered whether being forced to get their news from alternate Taiwanese news websites had already created an environment in which "news was being controlled and freedom of expression blocked." 

Meanwhile, the Apple Daily cyberattack continues to exact a toll on some overseas ISPs and their subscribers. Compiling reader feedback, Li wrote that the list of Internet service providers that encountered trouble accessing Taiwan’s Apple Daily website included Time Warner Cable, Verizon, and AT&T. For those still unable to access Apple Daily from overseas, there are some fixes, according to Li. Web users can try switching their Domain Name System; readers can also view synopses of Apple Daily articles on its Facebook page and most of its news clips on YouTube.

To be sure, overseas Taiwanese Apple Daily viewers were never entirely cut off from their newspaper. Besides Facebook and YouTube, viewers could also access the newspaper’s Hong Kong website, which features news and editorials geared more toward Hong Kong than Taiwan, as well as a host of other news and entertainment websites owned by Next Media, Apple Daily’s parent company. The extent of this cyber breach, however, is disconcerting for a nation increasingly on edge over Beijing’s steady creep into the island’s politics, economy and media; and the hackers’ success in paralyzing the website of a major news outlet known for its anti-China rhetoric has stoked fears of what future attacks may lie ahead.