Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Echoes of White Terror, or descent into paranoia?

Paul Lin (林保華), political commentator and frequent contributor to the Taipei Times, is worried. The China-born critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and, more recently, of the Chinese Nationalist Part (KMT), recently went public with fears that his activities are being monitored by the authorities. In an op-ed to be published in tomorrow’s edition of the Taipei Times, Lin alleges that on July 14 he received a phone call from the local section chief of the Investigation Bureau, who accused him of having “ties” to individuals (“terrorists”) from the Uighur independent movement. Lin writes that as the call was taking place, an agent was already outside his residence and requested to have a chat with him — a request that Lin turned down. He also alleges that since he helped launch the Taiwan Youth Anti-communist Corps (台灣青年反共救國團) last month, police have visited his home and informed him that his activities were being monitored.

Equally worrying are his allegations that his computer has been “hacked” into — despite a computer expert’s being unable to find Trojan horse software. Lin writes that unless he unplugs his Internet connection, his computer will, on its own, send “more information … than I had saved on it.” Lin and his wife also suspect that their telephone may have been tapped, as they have been hearing “strange noises” on the line for a while.

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. The Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau (MJIB) is a criminal investigation and counterintelligence agency that is subjected to the coordination and supervision of the National Security Bureau (NSB), which itself is subordinate to the National Security Council, whose Chairman, Su Chi (蘇起), is under the direct administration of the president. Recent developments, including comments by the National Immigration Agency last week that it would bar entry to Dolkun Isa, secretary-general of the Munich-based World Uighur Congress, if he attempted to come to Taiwan, are worrying developments about the state of civil liberties in Taiwan. Increased harassment by police of bloggers and groups in recent months also points to what appears to be a developing trend, of which Mr. Lin’s case could be part.

While not directly accusing the MJIB, Lin contends that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and/or the KMT may be targeting him for his activism, in what would be disturbing echoes of the environment independence activists faced during the dark period of White Terror in Taiwan. At this point, it’s hard to tell whether Lin is indeed being targeted by security agencies, or whether his growing paranoia is simply being fed by the authorities in an attempt to silence him.

Let’s take a closer look at his allegations. First, if Lin indeed were under surveillance, police would not have visited him at his home to inform him of this. Once a target becomes conscious that he is being monitored, he will either engage in counter-surveillance and/or change his habits, thus making it more difficult for the authorities to conduct physical surveillance. The only explanation for the admission by police, therefore, would be that the warnings served as intimidation.

Regarding his fears that his telephone line is being wiretapped: Phone intercept technology has come a long way in recent years. It is an urban legend that wiretaps create “strange noises” on the line, as the process is now fully digital. Two explanations therefore suggest themselves: Either an increasingly paranoid Mr. Lin is becoming more sensitive to background noise, or if wiretapping is indeed taking place, whoever is on the other side wants him to know — either by using rudimentary technology or deliberately generating “noise.” Another possibility is that rather than being a professional (i.e., conducted by the MJIB or the NSB) job, whoever is tapping Mr. Lin’s telephone line is an amateur (lone KMT elements, pro-unification groups, etc).

As for his computer transmitting the contents of his hard drive, Mr. Lin must provide more information on the matter, such as how the computer specialist managed to determine that this is happening, and what, as no Trojan Horse was found, is causing the transfer.

I am not saying that Mr. Lin is imagining all this, but his piece — with his conclusion that if something should happen to him, people should “remember him” — exhibits a level of paranoia that is hard to equate with his activities (unless, of course, he has engaged in more than publishing articles critical of the CCP and KMT). Fear, especially when there are precedents, as during the White Terror era in Taiwan, and in Communist China, where Lin lived for “almost 30 years,” can play tricks on the mind and create a whole new world of lurking shadows. As one gets sucked into the quicksand of paranoia, random occurrences will often be perceived as patterns (during the visit of ARATS Chairman Chen Yunlin [陳雲林] last November, for example, my Internet connection at home was interrupted for four days; the wires were cut, Chunghwa told us. Was it sabotage, given my criticism of the visit, or the fact that the wires were old, in a box exposed to the elements?)

Maybe all of this is real, or maybe none is. More likely, the truth lies somewhere in between. But the man is undeniably scared.


Taiwan Echo said...

Lin was harassed by the police back in Dec, 2008:


So he is kinda like a "frequent harassee" ...

Stefan said...

Hmmm - from the description "unless he unplugs the internet connection" - maybe he is looking at the activity LEDs? It's normal for an ethernet connection to have some activity, regardless whether the user is doing something or not. And some software which is in principle in user space (e.g. ntp, mail-checking, javascript in webbrowser windows, skype, instant messenger) can cause activity without the user doing anything. Similarly swapping and logging will cause activity on the disk, even if the user hasn't touched the keyboard in ages.

Of course, all that traffic could also mask an actual hacking attempt.

In any case, with the political situation being what it is, it's understandable that he is worried.