KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) – While the rest of the world is using apps like Signal, WhatsApp, and Telegram to communicate with each other, here in Taiwan, the go-to instant messenger and online call service is LINE.
It has an interesting history, having been developed in Japan in 2011, in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. With the national telecoms infrastructure badly damaged, software engineers of NHN Japan quickly developed an online app to allow staff to communicate with each other.
A decade on from that catastrophe and the NHN Japan Corporation has now been renamed LINE Corporation after the app’s stratospheric success. It currently boasts 167 million active users worldwide and is the most popular social media app in Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Taiwan.
In terms of market share, Taiwan is undoubtedly LINE’s big success story. It has 21 million monthly active users here, in a country with a population of just 23.8 million people. This is a market dominance that few apps can match anywhere in the world.
In Taiwan, LINE is the social app of choice for users young and old.
Kids are drawn in by the stickers, the in-app games, and the LINE Friends range of mascots. Older users probably like these too, but are also attracted by features such as LINE Pay.
LINE is used by businesspeople to make deals and, in Taiwan, an agreement on LINE is as good as a handshake or a written contract to many people. It is used by government and elected officials to communicate with their constituents and each other.
The amount of sensitive information and communications that take place on LINE has not been revealed but it is likely to be substantial.
Line of duty
This is why the recent revelation that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might have access to private information on LINE servers is a deeply troubling one for everyone in Taiwan.
LINE’s privacy policies have always been rather opaque and unclear. Now it has been reported the servers used by LINE have been managed since 2018 by a Chinese company.
As a result, Chinese engineers had the opportunity to look at LINE user data on at least 32 occasions. This data includes a wealth of personal information and, most worryingly of all, the content of all messages sent and received.
The reason this is concerning is China’s National Intelligence Law, which was passed in 2017. This requires all Chinese companies to hand over any data they hold to the CCP if requested to do so.
Companies are also forbidden from admitting that they have done this. If a Chinese company had access to the content of Taiwan's LINE messages, this effectively means the CCP regime did too.
The potential risks this could pose to Taiwan's national security and the personal security of its citizens don’t bear thinking about.
The CCP could have had access to confidential government and business data and information. They could have accessed private and potentially embarrassing personal information about senior elected individuals and businesspeople.
This information could easily be used to undermine Taiwan's democracy, business, and rule of law here. Then there is the question of what would happen in the event of a Chinese invasion.
We have all heard of the horrifying genocidal activities of the CCP in Xinjiang against the Uyghur-Muslim population after a few dared to speak out against CCP occupation. The prospect of similar purges in an occupied Taiwan seems likely and this information would be invaluable to the CCP regime in actioning that.
It could help the CCP to turn Taiwan into Xinjiang+.
As we reported, a Japanese government commission is investigating the accusations (which are almost as serious for Japanese national security as for us here in Taiwan). However, given the market saturation that LINE enjoys here, it is something the Taiwan authorities really need to look at too.
If LINE is not able to guarantee that user data will not fall into the hands of the hostile totalitarian regime that threatens Taiwan's sovereignty and national security on a daily basis, the government needs to give serious thought to what actions it can take.
An outright ban on LINE in Taiwan would not be unreasonable, although it would be hugely unpopular and politically damaging. More likely, a ban on government officials could be introduced and guidance issued to senior business people to use secure online platforms to conduct sensitive conversations.
There should also be an information campaign to make sure Taiwanese are fully aware of the privacy risks that LINE could pose to them, especially if they are discussing issues like Taiwanese independence that could raise a red flag in Beijing. There are plenty of secure platforms like Signal where these conversations can take place risk-free.
If LINE cannot guarantee that assurance, it is time for Taiwanese to get over their obsession with this quirky Japanese messenger service and switch to one that offers not just the features they like, but the security protections they need too.