TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The email accounts of over 10 cross-strait researchers at National Sun Yat-sen University (NSYSU) have been hacked and spied on over the course of three years, and the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) suspects the hackers were based in China.
One of the scholars victimized by the spying told CNA that since the second half of 2016, unidentified individuals have used a loophole in the Open Webmail system to create several fake accounts and pose as senior administrative university personnel. It is believed that the hackers were able to surreptitiously spy on the contents of more than 10 professors' email boxes for three years until the breach was finally noticed two weeks ago.
The university found that the hackers' victims were scholars in very specific fields. Their ranks included all the professors in the Institute of Political Science as well as some in the Institute of China and Asia-Pacific Studies and the department of political economy, where they had been researching cross-strait matters and public policy in Taiwan, according to the scholar.
The Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of the intruders were found to be located in China, the U.S., and Hong Kong, with the majority of the breaches originating from the latter this year. Authorities suspect that the hackers used a virtual private network (VPN) to disguise their true location.
The university's IT employees found that although the hackers had been lurking on the email system for a long period of time, no malicious programs had been installed, nor had the email content or personal data of users been tampered with. The sole purpose of the hackers' activities appears to have been spying on targeted academics at the university.
The loophole has since been closed and the fake accounts deleted, but the school fears that more waves of spying will follow. The scholar said he worries that the hackers have fully grasped every academic and think tank network targeted by the long-term spying.
"Open Webmail is the email system used by almost every university in Taiwan. If this could happen at Sun Yat-sen University, it can also happen to other universities, especially those that cooperate closely with the government on foreign affairs, cross-strait affairs, national security, or high-tech fields," the scholar told CNA.
Open Webmail is a set of free e-mail mailbox programs with open source code. It is widely used on university campuses across Taiwan.
In response to the news, Chiu Chui-cheng (邱垂正), deputy head and spokesman of the MAC, on Thursday (Nov. 7) said that in recent years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has begun spying on communication networks at Taiwanese universities, reported CNA. He said he has contacted the Ministry of Education to investigate the situation and strongly advises that Taiwanese universities take more steps to secure their networks from Chinese spying.
Chiu noted that the totalitarian regime run by the CCP has been suppressing dissent for a long time. He further stated that in recent years, it has taken to using invasive surveillance systems on college campuses in China to monitor the behavior of teachers and students, expand political control, and increasingly violate human rights.
Chiu added that the international community is seriously concerned about the CCP's recent use of "sharp power" to influence other countries and interfere with the normal research of academic institutions around the world.