'China developing tools to control foreign satellites': Kenny Huang

Huang is CEO, Taiwan Network Information Centre


On December 12, representatives of India, the United States and Taiwan met in New Delhi, for closed-door discussions on the challenge of cyberattacks on democratic systems, as the three countries are holding general elections in 2024. Eric Garcetti, the US ambassador to India, said technical collaboration was essential to safeguard cyberspace in all three countries. Kenny Huang, CEO of the Taiwan Network Information Centre under the ministry of digital affairs in Taipei, has been on the job ever since. Huang is trying to cement the collaboration between the three countries to defend against a common threat factor―China’s covert cyber warriors.

Being cross-strait neighbours, Taiwan holds the key to some secrets of China, not so well known to militaries in other countries. One such secret is the swift advancement of the People’s Liberation Army in developing advanced cyber weapons that can ‘seize control’ of enemy satellites and threaten to disrupt global communication, navigation and surveillance systems. “The consequences may extend to the manipulation or disabling of crucial infrastructure, including GPS navigation, weather monitoring, communication networks and compromising military surveillance,” said Huang in an exclusive interview. Excerpts:

Q What kind of cyber threat is Taiwan facing from China?

A China poses a significant cyber threat to Taiwan across its military branches. China has developed advanced cyber capabilities in the air force, navy, ground force and rocket force. These capabilities target communication systems, intelligence networks and command structures, potentially disrupting air, naval and ground operations. In the rocket force, cyber tools may aim to secure and disrupt missile defence systems. China integrates cyber capabilities into its broader military strategy, emphasising information warfare. This comprehensive approach includes both offensive cyber operations and defence against potential cyber threats. Taiwan must prioritise cyber security measures to protect against these persistent and sophisticated cyber threats from China. Enhancing defences across air, naval, ground and rocket forces is crucial for safeguarding Taiwan’s military capabilities in the face of evolving cyber challenges posed by China.

Q What do you know about Unit 61398 of the PLA?

A Unit 61398 is a covert cyber unit within the PLA, suspected of participating in cyber espionage and attacks. It is situated in Shanghai’s Pudong district. Specifics about the unit’s strength are undisclosed because of the secretive nature of its operations. However, it reportedly consists of experts involved in hacking and technical operations.

The unit is implicated in stealing sensitive information, conducting economic espionage and launching cyberattacks with potential geopolitical consequences. One extensively reported case involves its alleged participation in cyber intrusions, notably against entities in the United States. These operations are aimed at extracting intellectual property, sensitive data and proprietary information, linking the unit to attacks on sectors like technology, defence and health care.

Q When did China setup the covert cyber unit and what kind of operations has it conducted worldwide till now? 

FILES-CHINA-TAIWAN-US-DIPLOMACY-MILITARY Keeping watch: A Chinese military helicopter flying past Pingtan island, one of mainland China’s closest points from Taiwan | AFP

A Established in the early 2000s, Unit 61398 has been connected to various global cyber operations. Noteworthy instances include cyber-espionage campaigns targeting governments, corporations, and critical infrastructure. The unit is implicated in stealing sensitive information, conducting economic espionage, and launching cyber-attacks with potential geopolitical consequences. One extensively reported case involves the alleged participation of Unit 61398 in cyber intrusions, notably against entities in the United States. These operations aimed to extract intellectual property, sensitive data, and proprietary information, linking the unit to attacks on sectors like technology, defence, and healthcare. Unit 61398's operations highlight the changing landscape of state-sponsored cyber threats and emphasise the strategic importance of cyber capabilities in geopolitical affairs.

Q There is worry that China has the capability to jam communications and intelligence satellites.

A In case of military strikes on Taiwan, reports suggest that China might employ tactics to disrupt communication and intelligence satellites. This could involve jamming signals, rendering communication systems ineffective, and impairing intelligence-gathering capabilities. Additionally, there are concerns that China might target ballistic missile early warning satellites, which play a crucial role in detecting and tracking missile launches. These actions align with a broader strategy to disrupt the communication and surveillance infrastructure that is vital for military operations. Disabling satellites could hinder Taiwan’s ability to coordinate defences, share critical information and monitor potential missile threats. As such, safeguarding satellite capabilities and developing countermeasures against potential interference would be crucial elements of Taiwan’s defence strategy in the event of heightened tensions or military actions in the region.

Q What kind of chaos can be expected if China ‘seizes control’ of enemy satellites?

A If successful, this could disrupt global communication, navigation and surveillance systems, impacting both military and civilian operations. The consequences may extend to the manipulation or disabling of crucial infrastructure, including GPS navigation, weather monitoring and communication networks. In a worst-case scenario, these cyber capabilities could be exploited to interfere with essential services like financial transactions, air traffic control and emergency response systems. Such control over satellites could also jeopardise national security by compromising military surveillance and intelligence-gathering capabilities. This highlights the urgent need for international collaboration and robust cyber security measures to safeguard satellite infrastructure, ensuring the continued functioning of critical systems on a global scale.

Q Taiwan has accused China of information warfare ahead of presidential elections. What kind of threats have you faced? 

A Taiwan faces a range of cyber threats, primarily emanating from China, ahead of elections. These threats include phishing attacks, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, and advanced persistent threats (APTs). Phishing attempts often target political figures, government officials, and organisations, seeking unauthorised access to sensitive information. DDoS attacks aim to disrupt critical online infrastructure, while APTs involve sophisticated, long-term infiltration for intelligence gathering or influence campaigns. The frequency of cyber attacks varies, and tracking an exact daily or monthly count can be challenging due to the evolving nature of cyber threats. Monitoring and incident response teams are actively engaged in identifying, mitigating, and analysing these attacks. Continuous vigilance is essential, and collaboration with international cybersecurity entities is crucial. 

Q What lessons can be drawn from the Russia-Ukraine war, the first hybrid war the world has seen?

A It teaches us valuable lessons about the effectiveness of hybrid warfare, combining traditional military actions with cyber operations and information warfare. It underscores the need to address both conventional and non-traditional threats in modern conflicts. The war showed that countries should be ready to handle a mix of military, cyber and information threats. The lessons emphasise the importance of being resilient against different kinds of challenges, such as cyberattacks and misinformation. It also highlights the need for nations to update their military strategies to adapt to the changing nature of conflicts in today’s world. The Russia-Ukraine war serves as a contemporary example that prompts countries to take a more comprehensive and flexible approach to national security.

Q In what way can China discredit the democratic process?

A There is a real worry about China trying to influence Taiwan’s elections either by favouring a specific party or spreading misinformation to discredit the democratic process. China’s motives seem quite complex. One possibility is that China wants a party in Taiwan that aligns with its goals, like supporting reunification. By influencing the election in favour of such a party, China could advance its own interests. Another concern is that China might aim to undermine trust in the democratic process itself. This could involve spreading false information, casting doubt on the fairness of the elections, or questioning the legitimacy of candidates. The goal here is to create instability and shake people’s confidence in Taiwanese politicians and the democratic system.