Months of internet outage exposes Taiwan’s network vulnerabilities

MATSU, Taiwan — In February, the local telecom office, a nondescript gray building on Nangan Island, became the hottest hangout spot for several weeks.

Even after Chunghwa Telecom’s outpost closed its doors at 9 p.m., residents put on their jackets and crowded outside with their cell phones and laptops, braving the cold wind and crouching on the steps in the dark.

They were there to use the Wi-Fi network to get online.

It was an inconvenient but necessary measure after the only two underwater internet cables to Taiwan’s remote Matsu Archipelago were severed within days, most likely by Chinese ships, in early February.

The 14,000 inhabitants of the archipelago to which Nangan belongs were immediately taken off the grid.

Chunghwa Telecom’s service worked, albeit slowly because it relied on older microwave radio transmission technology. The telecommunications company, which is partially owned by the government, had set it up as a backup for residents.

Taiwan’s National Communications Commission suspects that the cables of two Chinese ships were damaged, the first by a fishing vessel on February 2 and the second by a cargo ship on February 8.

An official with knowledge of the incident told the Associated Press that Taiwan’s Coast Guard followed the fishing boat that cut the first cable before returning to Chinese waters. Authorities also spotted two Chinese vessels in the area where the cables were cut, the AP said.

The government agency said there is no evidence the cables were intentionally cut, but officials and security analysts say the frequency with which they are damaged is a cause for concern — and has national security implications for Taiwan.

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Based on data from Chunghwa Telecom, the two cables connecting Matsu have been severed 27 times by ships of unknown origin in the past five years.

That’s “much higher” than other places in the world, said Dr. Kenny Huang, CEO of the non-profit Taiwan Network Information Center, which is partially funded by the government.

“There are around 400 submarine Internet cables around the world, and every year around 50 to 100 cable failures are caused by ships and their anchors. You can see the anomalies from Matsu’s data,” he said.

It is also unusual that Matsu’s cables were severed in quick succession. “This situation cannot be considered normal under any circumstances,” he said.

dr Huang noted that cutting internet cables could be a “useful tool” for China to engage in so-called “grey area” aggression against Taiwan, using unconventional tactics to subdue enemies while preventing a real war.