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Remarks by AIT Director Sandra Oudkirk at National Taiwan University

December 4, 2023

Remarks by AIT Director Sandra Oudkirk at National Taiwan University titled
“The United States and Taiwan: Working Together to Combat Online Information Manipulation and Cyberattacks”

December 4, 2023


As Delivered


Vice President Ding, members of the faculty, students, good afternoon.  午安,大家好!

It is a real honor to be here today, and I want to thank NTU for its longstanding partnership with AIT, which has helped to further the U.S.-Taiwan relationship through people-to-people, educational, and cultural exchanges.  I have made several visits to NTU since the beginning of my tenure as AIT Director, and I have always been impressed by the hospitality of the community and the wonderful learning environment you have built here.

I first lived in Taiwan in the early nineties — just a few years after the end of martial law — and I am thoroughly impressed by Taiwan’s democratic transition.  It is clear there is a broad, non-partisan commitment in Taiwan society that unites political parties, the private sector, civil society, and academia in defense of a free, open, and democratic society.  Taiwan is indeed, as we so often say, “a model of democracy.”  University students and faculty played a crucial role in driving these changes over the last several decades, so it is really fitting for me to be speaking here today on what we think of as the “next generation” challenges to democratic systems.  Today I want to focus my remarks on cyberattacks and online information manipulation — a shared set of challenges that the United States and Taiwan can address together. 

Before I delve into that topic, I’d first like to first outline how my work and that of our team here at AIT fits into this broader discussion.

As you have all probably heard before, the United States enjoys a robust, unofficial relationship with Taiwan.  At AIT, we work with our counterparts here in Taiwan to advance a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific that is connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient.  AIT is working every day to expand our cooperation with Taiwan on our many shared interests and values.  We will continue to support Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the international community, and we will work to deepen our economic ties, all consistent with our “One China” policy.

Just this year, the United States served as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation host economy, and we witnessed, up close and personal, Taiwan’s meaningful contributions to APEC ministerials and other important meetings throughout the year, including during the APEC Leaders’ Week in San Francisco last month.  Taiwan played a truly significant role in a series of APEC events this year that were focused on digital innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship, and has worked closely with other APEC economies to help reduce the digital divide and encourage economic growth through digital transformation.  We encourage Taiwan to continue to play this role in APEC and other fora.

Since I first lived here in the 1990s, which I know was a long time ago for those of you who are not sitting in the front two rows, the U.S.-Taiwan partnership has steadily deepened.  At the same time, the United States and Taiwan face a regional and global landscape that is more challenging and more complex than ever before.

As President Biden noted during his meeting with President Xi Jinping on the margins of the APEC Summit in San Francisco, the United States and the PRC are engaged in intense competition, but the world expects the United States and China to manage this competition responsibly.  The United States will always stand up for its interests, its values, and its allies and partners, including Taiwan.

U.S. support for Taiwan remains rock-solid, principled, and bipartisan, and that support is entirely consistent with our one China policy and longstanding commitments.  We firmly believe that the U.S. commitment to Taiwan contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and helps to create a more stable and resilient region.

A key focus that I have for AIT’s cooperation with Taiwan is the urgent need for both of us to more effectively counter cybersecurity threats.  Cybersecurity is among our top strategic goals at AIT because it lies at the nexus of national security and economic security.  Cyberattacks worldwide are growing in both scale and sophistication as cyber criminals adapt their strategies and tactics to disrupt networks, steal intellectual property, and conduct cyber espionage.  It is no secret that critical infrastructure and prominent companies in both the United States and Taiwan have been and continue to be the target of cyber hacks, data breaches, and ransomware attacks.  Taiwan is both a key node in the global ICT supply chain and an important physical link in the network of undersea telecommunications cables spanning the globe, and has also become a test bed for cyber intrusions from hostile actors.

As Taiwan Minister of Digital Affairs Audrey Tang has noted publicly many times, Taiwan is subject to significant cyberattacks, “including a campaign of highly coordinated, multifaceted attacks targeting Taiwan’s civic infrastructure” amounting to “a potent mix of cyber manipulation and interference.”  These malicious activities have the goal of not only “disrupting day to day life,” but also “hollowing out democratic institutions” and carry the threat of future escalation.

Taiwan primarily faces cyber threats from one state actor, while the United States is subject to cyber threats from a variety of state, non-state, and criminal actors.  The ransomware attack against Colonial Pipeline in 2021 resulted in a six-day shutdown of the pipeline network that supplies more than half of all the liquid fuel used on the East Coast of the United States.  The SolarWinds hack in 2020, which was attributed to Russia-backed hacker groups, impacted thousands of organizations globally including many U.S. government entities, and triggered a large-scale supply chain disruption.  And the WannaCry ransomware attack in 2017 targeted Microsoft systems, resulting in billions of dollars in damage to organizations in over 150 countries.  It even caused TSMC to temporarily halt production at several of its facilities.  The fact that the United States and Taiwan share this common challenge makes it even more important that we work together as partners and learn from each other to bolster cyber, critical infrastructure, and societal resilience.

Stability, safety, and security in cyberspace are critical to societal resilience. Understanding this principle, the Biden-Harris Administration is taking key measures to prioritize and elevate cybersecurity in the United States and with trusted partners, including Taiwan.

In March of this year, the Administration launched the 2023 National Cybersecurity Strategy.  As the strategy states, “In this decisive decade, the United States will reimagine cyberspace as a tool to achieve our goals in a way that reflects our values: economic security and prosperity; respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; trust in our democracy and democratic institutions; and an equitable and diverse society.”  The United States will work with our allies and partners, including Taiwan, to counter threats to our digital ecosystem and to build secure, reliable, and trustworthy global supply chains for information and communications technology.

As the United States and Taiwan both work to safeguard public and private data and networks from cyber threats, I am proud of the work we have already done together.  We are working together to prevent and investigate cybercrime, to provide capacity-building training for Taiwan cyber professionals and policymakers, and to build bridges between U.S. and Taiwan industry.  In November, we jointly hosted a Global Cooperation and Training Framework workshop on Human Rights in the Digital Age, including discussions of how to promote cybersecurity and counter malicious cyber activity.

Cyberspace is truly a multistakeholder arena, and that is why the U.S. Department of Commerce is also prioritizing cybersecurity through private sector engagement.  Colleagues at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (or NIST), who recently visited Taiwan, are in the process of updating NIST’s widely adopted Cybersecurity Framework to version 2.0.  This Framework provides guidance to industry, government agencies, and other organizations to manage cybersecurity risks.  It is a voluntary framework, but it is not just for large-scale critical infrastructure providers.  Organizations of all sizes and types throughout the world can use the framework to better understand, assess, prioritize, and communicate their cybersecurity efforts.

Just as in the United States, I believe that here in Taiwan robust industry engagement is essential to ensuring that cyber policies reflect the full expertise of all the key players in cyberspace.  Private industry possesses many of the most advanced capabilities and tools to address and mitigate cyber risks, as well as first-hand experience in protecting public and private networks, including critical infrastructure.  Taiwan can leverage all these capabilities by involving private industry in the policymaking process, which will further ensure that industry players are fully committed to cyber policies once they are put into effect.  In this way, Taiwan can best fulfill President Tsai’s stated mandate to enhance the island’s cyber security resilience.

The second topic, which is a related focus I have for AIT, is working with Taiwan counterparts to combat the influence of online information manipulation on our democracies.  As we all know, the development of the Internet, not to mention emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, has enabled incredible innovation and economic growth that benefits our societies and the world at large.  But at the same time, new technologies always pose new risks, including in this case, enabling a dramatic rise in the spread and impact of online information manipulation, sometimes for criminal ends and often to manufacture polarization and to foster societal division.  Even AIT itself has been targeted – a recent analysis by a major multinational technology company revealed that covert influence operations carried out by a state-sponsored actor have pushed a new wave of messages criticizing AIT and sowing falsehoods about us.

Some of the same cyber actors who target our critical infrastructure and private sector networks also manipulate information online to harm our democracies.  Information manipulation is not simply a matter of public diplomacy – it is a challenge to the integrity of the inherently global information space as well as a security issue.  As open, democratic societies, the United States and Taiwan are on the frontlines as we grapple with the spread of disinformation – a term we use to describe information that is intentional, harmful, and false – and propaganda, particularly as foreign actors seek to use social media and emerging technologies to manipulate public discourse, divide the public, sow discord, influence our elections, and essentially undermine confidence in our democratic institutions.

This threat is especially worrisome in the context of democratic elections – the treasured process by which free societies choose how and by whom they would like to be governed.   The United States, Taiwan, and many others have witnessed how intentional manipulation of information can undermine people’s faith in the democratic process and in democracy itself.  Without public trust in free and fair elections, the ability of our democracies to thrive is at risk.

That is why the United States along with Taiwan and many other partners around the world participated in the Global Declaration on Information Integrity Online, which seeks to counter the erosion of accurate, trustworthy, and reliable information that people can access.  Information manipulation contributes to the weakening of democratic engagement and hinders open public debate on important issues that affect all of us and that are crucial for democracies to thrive.  Access to diverse and reliable sources of information, and ultimately a shared set of facts, is essential for a well-functioning society.  This enables people to form opinions, hold their leaders accountable, and actively participate and feel ownership in the community and the world around them.  As Minister Audrey Tang has noted, “Information Integrity” is the cornerstone of trust, whether it’s identifying an individual, an organization, or a document.  And building this digital trust is an urgent task for leaders and policymakers.  It is vital for the survival of the digital industry, a robust civil society community, and indeed the longevity of our democratic institutions.

There is no better time to have this discussion and to have reliable information than during election season.  As Taiwan gets closer to its elections, I want to emphasize that the United States has deep confidence in Taiwan’s electoral processes and democratic system.  We believe it is for Taiwan voters to decide their next leader, free from outside interference.   As I have said many times before, the United States is not taking sides in Taiwan’s election, we do not have a preferred candidate, and we know very well that we do not have a vote.  U.S. policy on Taiwan will remain the same regardless of which party is in power.  We support Taiwan’s vibrant democracy and look forward to working with whichever leaders Taiwan voters elect in 2024.

I firmly believe that democracy is the form of government with the greatest capacity to safeguard human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the dignity of every person, as well as to advance peace, prosperity, and security globally.  Democracies are best able to serve those functions when there is an environment of free and open exchange of information and ideas.

Disinformation has the potential to drown out these vital discussions, misshape beliefs, and misform policy preferences.  Information manipulation can instigate violence, erode our trust in media and public institutions, and affect whether or even how people exercise their right to vote.  As a result, effectively ensuring information integrity is essential to protecting our democracy and upholding our national security.

Addressing the challenge of information manipulation will require the efforts of not only officials but all of us who have a stake in this issue, including companies, non-governmental organizations, educational institutions, the media, and perhaps most significantly, an active and informed public.  It is critical for multiple stakeholders to continue to find ways to share information, best practices, and lessons learned.  Civil society and the academic community are well placed to help identify and expose trends in information manipulation and to offer technical expertise on the ever-evolving methods used by hostile actors.  To that end, the United States will continue to support efforts to strengthen civil society and media literacy in Taiwan, in the Indo-Pacific region, and beyond.  These efforts involve a wide range of partners and stakeholders – officials, media, private sector entities, educators, civil society organizations – all of us working together to ensure everyone has the tools and skills that they need to think critically about the information they consume and to make informed decisions.

Through these global efforts, we can effectively raise public consciousness and awareness about information manipulation.  A public that is more media literate is able to better assess the validity of the information it encounters through various media sources and to make well-informed decisions.  Given all this, we must continue to work together to identify and bring attention to attempts to manipulate information to harm our societies.  We must continue to collaborate as partners to bolster resilience and to counter cyberattacks.  We must support one another in these critical areas because that is what partners do.  We work together to confront shared challenges and identify solutions.  We look forward to working with Taiwan in this spirit of partnership on these issues.  Thank you again for the opportunity to speak with you today.

Thank you!  謝謝大家!