Vietnam’s hackers targeting foreign firms with anti-dissident tactics


A Vietnamese group known as OceanLotus is targeting foreign companies, using tactics similar to those in attacks against dissidents, journalists and governments at odds with the country, The New York Times reports:

The OceanLotus group “accessed personnel details and other data from multiple victim organizations that would be of very little use to any party other than the Vietnamese government,” said Nick Carr, a security expert at FireEye and the primary author of the report…Plainclothes security forces in Vietnam, a one-party authoritarian state, regularly spy on journalists, activists and political dissidents, sometimes in almost comically obvious ways — tailing them by motorbike, for example, or eavesdropping in a cafe. Activists in the Vietnamese diaspora have also reported being targeted by what they say is state-sponsored hacking.

State-sponsored hacking is “the new way to do espionage in the 21st century because it’s much easier to resource compared to a human operation,” said Tim Wellsmore, Asia director of threat intelligence at FireEye, a company based in California that deals with large network breaches. “This is a low-cost, high-return model.”

An advanced threat group, code-named APT32, has carried out compromises in firms across multiple industries and its activity aligns with Vietnamese state interests, writes Infosecurity’s Tara Seals.  APT32 has also targeted Vietnamese dissidents and journalists since at least 2013:

  • public blog published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation indicated that journalists, activists, dissidents, and bloggers were targeted in 2013 by malware and tactics consistent with APT32 operations.
  • In 2014, APT32 leveraged a spear-phishing attachment titled “Plans to crackdown on protesters at the Embassy of Vietnam.exe,” which targeted dissident activity among the Vietnamese diaspora in Southeast Asia. Also in 2014, APT32 carried out an intrusion against a Western country’s national legislature.

Vietnam must end the ongoing crackdown on dissidents, repeal its repressive laws, and immediately release all political prisoners, said international human rights group FIDH and its member organization Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR).

Their appeal was prompted by Vietnam’s Appeals Court’s decision to uphold the jail sentences of a former army officer and soldier for attempting to form a pro-democracy organization that authorities say was planning a coup to overthrow the one-party communist government, RFA reports:

Retired Lt. Colonel Tran Anh Kim (shown right in photo of closed circuit TV broadcast of his 2009 trial) and ex-soldier Le Thanh Tung had been sentenced in December 2016 by a court in Thai Binh province to 13 years and 12 years in prison, respectively, for “activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” under Article 79 of Vietnam’s Penal Code. Kim, who served in the Vietnam War, has become one of Vietnam’s most persistent dissidents and had been freed from prison eight months ago after serving a five-and-a-half-year prison term on a similar charge under Article 79 of the country’s penal code. Le Thanh Tung, an ex-soldier and freelance journalist, was sentenced in August 2012 by a Hanoi court under Article 88 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits “conducting propaganda against the state” for his association with Bloc 8406—a banned coalition of political groups advocating democratic reform in the one-party Communist state.

Vietnam is one of a number of illiberal democracies and authoritarian governments in Asia – alongside Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Cambodia – that are targeting foreign funding of civil society organizations because they suspect CSOs are spreading Western values, ideologies and practices, notes Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Japan.

Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party has called for open dialogue with the people to hear “different opinions” on how to run the country, but observers have questioned whether the government is willing to listen to criticism and embrace change, RFA reports:

In a recent online conference to review the implementation of the Politburo’s “Directive No. 5” on learning from and following the ideology of Vietnam’s communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, Central Propaganda Department chief Vo Van Thuong said the party is ready to look outside its ranks for ideas on governance. Thuong said his department is awaiting guidance from the Central Party Secretariat on how to organize public discussions, adding that the communist party “is not afraid” of dialogue and debate….Thuong must prove that he is willing to embrace new thinking before the people will back him as an agent of change, said Tuong Lai, the former director of the Vietnam Institute of Sociology.

“If he wants to earn the trust of the people, then he has to ‘break the fence’ and follow the example of predecessors who have ‘broken the fence’ … only then will he earn a place in the people’s heart,” he said.

But the offer of dialogue is a “new and very encouraging signal,” said former political prisoner Dr. Cu Huy Ha Vu (left).

However, pro-democracy and human rights activists, dissidents shouldn’t expect the Vietnamese government to immediately conduct a fair dialogue with dissidents, the constitutional scholar and former Reagan-Fascell fellow told the BBC Vietnamese Service.

The ruling Communist Party will initially invite to the dialogue only dissidents whose views are acceptable to the Party.

Vietnamese police recently surrounded the homes of two high-profile dissident bloggers last week in a move to isolate them just days ahead of a human rights dialogue scheduled with U.S. diplomats, RFA adds:

One whose home was put under guard, jailed blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (right), was honored this year with the U.S. State Department’s International Woman of Courage Award for her work highlighting rights abuses and promoting peaceful dissent in the one-party communist state. Quynh, who blogged under the pen name Mother Mushroom, has been held incommunicado since her arrest by Vietnamese authorities last October.

Labor rights defender Tran Thi Nga, held in detention for online activism, is in poor health and has been refused visits from her family, according to her lawyer, who met with her for the first time since she was arrested nearly four months ago, RFA reports. She was arrested on Jan. 21 in Phu Ly, the capital city of northern Vietnam’s Ha Nam province, and charged under Article 88 for “using the internet to spread propaganda videos and writings” against the state.

Check out this video (below) about former prisoner of conscience Phạm Thanh Nghiên, a finalist for the 2017 Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights, to learn more about the struggle of Vietnamese political activists.


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