The newly established and highly ambitious Ministry of Digital Affairs has great potential if it can heed the many challenges ahead.
It has been six months since Audrey Tang took the helm as Taiwan’s official digital minister of the newly established Ministry of Digital Affairs (Moda). Tang has since made frequent appearances in domestic and international media, promoting Moda’s efforts to strengthen Taiwan’s digital resilience.
While Tang’s PR has been successful internationally, it has not been as well received domestically.
“[Moda] is a little bit distant from the civilians in Taiwan,” says Lin Ping-you, a city councilor for New Taipei City’s Xizhi district. “Most people don’t quite understand what [Moda] is doing.”
Lin and other digital governance and cybersecurity experts interviewed share the same initial impressions of Moda: the Ministry touts a broad range of goals across sectors, but the public remains largely in the dark about the specifics.
The new Ministry comprises the Administration for Digital Industries and Administration for Cyber Security, as well as six departments: digital strategy, communications and cyber resilience, resources management, digital service, democracy network, and plural innovation. It will also consolidate telecommunications, information, cybersecurity, internet, and communications.
Moda has so far promoted several initiatives it hopes will aid Taiwan’s digital transformation: plans for a backup satellite internet system, a new National Institute for Cyber Security, policy decisions such as a ban on TikTok for public sector employees, and a new platform called TCloud, designed to help more small and medium enterprises establish an online presence.
A new government ministry can hardly be expected to produce tangible progress after just six months of operations. Still, lack of government transparency has been problematic, says Huang Szu-hui, project coordinator at Open Culture Foundation (OCF), a nonprofit that advocates for open technology.
“The government should define what they expect Moda to be,” says Huang. “A consultant? Or the role of coordinating with different departments? Do they want to just be tech support or really be in charge as a leader of all digital methods? This has revealed that the government hasn’t really figured out how they should define the role of Moda. It’s really led to confusion of all citizens.”
Moda’s website bills it as the government body responsible for promoting Taiwan’s digital transformation, implementing policy innovation and reform with goals of ensuring national cybersecurity, encouraging digital transformation across sectors, and enhancing digital resilience for all. Tang has described Moda as the “motor” powering Taiwan’s digital development.
But recent news of multiple data leaks has wavered public confidence in the integrity of government data management. Taiwanese also appear increasingly concerned about security and data protection in the face of growing threats to Taiwan’s infrastructure and an increase in Chinese “cognitive warfare” tactics against the island.
An anonymous whistleblower told local media in October that hackers had stolen and sold over 23 million pieces of household registration data, impacting more than 200,000 people, including government officials. After the Ministry of Interior denied it was the data source, officials launched an investigation into the leak.
Other data breaches – such as a recent National Health Insurance Administration leak and an incident at China Airlines in which employees allegedly leaked data on celebrities’ travel schedules – have damaged citizens’ confidence that the government takes data protection seriously.
Even after positioning itself as a digital regulator, Moda has avoided taking on responsibility for the household registration data leak, says Yachi Chiang, an associate professor at National Taiwan Ocean University who specializes in IP and cyber laws.
“We have the Personal Data Protection Act, but there is no independent personal data office at the moment,” she says. “So while there have been multiple cases of data breaches, we don’t know which government agency is to be blamed. So no one is blamed. Nobody is taking responsibility. That’s not a good way to ensure the public that our data is safe.”
Deputy Minister of Moda Herming Chiueh maintains that the data appears to be at least a decade old and was stolen long before the Ministry was established. He adds that the government has not seen any “major cybersecurity events” in the past three years.
The problem, Chiueh says, is that the government has continued to use “very traditional ways” of transferring data – for example, copying an entire database from a physical optical disk. “In this case, this disk must be destroyed after they used the data,” he says. “But this never happened. So there is a possibility it will be leaked.”
Building a digitally resilient society
Moda officials say an essential part of stopping future data breaches is building a more robust digital governance structure.
“The idea of Moda is that we are organizing the government,” says Chiueh. “We combine all the different departments from different agencies. Some departments should not be independent – like the NCC (National Communications Commission). They should be working together with other ministries.”
“Digital transformation and resilience are the two most important issues in the coming years,” says Chiueh.
That means implementing stronger systems that officials hope will protect against data leaks, such as a new zero-trust cloud system called T-Road, which will allow for more efficient exchange of government data. The new regulated system will force government agencies to narrow the scope of data gathered for processing a request.
“For example, if there is statistical information they need, we should probably not give them raw data,” Chiueh says. “If what they need is personal data, in T-Road, they should be able to get limited data.”
It’s a potentially time-consuming job for Moda, which faces a system in which each government agency has been responsible for assigning its own dedicated personnel to set cybersecurity and IT standards in accordance with the Personal Data Protection Act. Some agencies still store data in physical form.
Moda has now assumed the responsibility for stipulating cybersecurity standards, says Tseng Ken-ying, an attorney at Lee and Li Attorneys at Law specializing in personal data protection, e-commerce, the laws of the internet, telecommunications, and technology.
“If the T-Road system would conduct more monitoring activities or implement more controlling measures, it should help prevent similar incidents,” she says. “On the other hand, if the security levels for the current system and the T-Road system are the same, perhaps a centralized system for data storage would be exposed to more risks.”
T-Road, which has already been in the works for several years, has become a priority for 2023. Still, Tseng notes that although there are legal repercussions for hackers stealing and selling data, penalties are “not severe.” They’re also difficult to enforce since hacks often come from foreign actors operating in other countries. Taiwan’s lack of international recognition makes enforcement even more challenging.
And as data breaches have been appearing in the news on a regular basis, Taiwan Ocean University’s Chiang says the problem should be met with a stronger immediate response.
“Many proposed measures are for the future,” she says. But “people are worried about what’s happening right now, especially now that the threats are present … For example, for potential sabotage of infrastructure, Moda proposed the satellite internet system as an alternative, which is great. But between the present threats and future measures, there is a gap.”
Cooperation with civil society
Tang was already a prolific software programmer before beginning her political career. After being appointed digital minister without portfolio in 2017, Tang worked to implement projects that would bring the government closer to civil society, like the vTaiwan platform gathering government, businesses, and civil society in discussions, and a mapping of mask availability at pharmacies during the pandemic, created in 2020 by the g0v civic tech community.
Tang’s past engagement with civil society has sparked hope that similar efforts will continue with Moda, although some have expressed skepticism related to the limits that come with being a government official operating within a heavily bureaucratic system.
To meet these concerns, OCF has been working to keep civil society organizations in close contact with Moda. Before the Ministry’s opening in August, OCF released a joint statement with the Taiwan Association for the Promotion of Human Rights, the Taiwan Open Data Consortium, and other organizations, asking Moda to “promote freedom and openness, ensure democracy and human rights, and encourage public participation.”
OCF’s Huang says the public’s anger over Moda’s response to data leaks comes down to the Ministry’s lack of a human rights concept. “Even though Moda keeps focusing on digital economy development and data security, when people are talking about Moda, their expectations are more related to their human rights, their digital identity, and how to protect their own data.”
Moda has stated its intention to work closely with the public by keeping in contact with organizations like OCF and launching a call for 100 social welfare project proposals from the general public. OCF has also been collaborating closely with Moda and other government bodies to improve digital literacy among government staff and build a more open government.
According to OCF, a resilient digital democracy involves strengthened public supervision, accountability, and civic participation through an open digital government – something that the government cannot achieve alone. The organization wants to see more concrete paths allowing civil society and government to work together to impact change.
“Cooperation between civil society and government is extremely important because Moda is no longer a single project,” says Huang. “It is going to impact our country’s future. As a civil society organization, our impact is only limited to certain populations. In reality, the government has to make the movement to change society. So what we can do as a civil society is show the government what works so they can develop it into their long-term strategy.”