Vietnam News

Vietnam’s rise in cyberspace

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With its developed capabilities in manufacturing and technology services, Vietnam has almost on a par with countries like India, China and Japan in exploiting the digital world for the greater good of its population.

While this is promising, Vietnam has also slowly emerged as the newest Gladiator of cyberspace in the Asia-Pacific region.

With the country planning to gain an advantage over regional economic powers like China, Japan, and South Korea, there has been an increase in cyber espionage activity targeting multi-nationals. The country has rarely been associated with cybercrime or attack activity in the same way other Asian nations, such as China, North Korea, and Iran, have in recent years, but this perception is changing rapidly.

Vietnamese-language based activity and internet traffic on the Dark Web are rising, and so are attacks on foreign multi-national corporations and organizations based in the country, particularly automotive companies and media houses.

Vietnam does not have all the resources to compete with world powers like China or the U.S. in traditional warfare or economic stature, but cyberspace is levelling the combat field. Vietnam is developing its potential in becoming a cyber warfare outpost.

The zero death count (to date) in Vietnam due to COVID19 stands testament to how the country might have used its capability in almost blocking the virus outbreak with fewer than 350 infections. This can partly be credited to the hackers based out of Vietnam.

Due to Chinese non-transparency about the virus and need for COVID19 intelligence, hackers targeted Chinese government officials during the coronavirus outbreak in the early days of January 2020, when the pandemic had barely spread anywhere else in the world.

The government-backed hacker group called APT32 (Advanced Persistent Threat Group) also referred to as Ocean Lotus Group, tried to compromise the professional and personal email accounts of employees at China’s Ministry of Emergency Management and the Government of Wuhan. APT32 group’s cyber-attack is in line with similar attempts made by a host of state-backed hackers to compromise governments, businesses, and health organizations in the extraction of information about the new disease and attempts to combat it.

When the health crisis developed and there was a shortage of information, Vietnam deployed its intelligence community via APT32 to gather more information. The very intent to take China head on speaks volumes of Vietnam’s resolve and the attacks could have yielded crucial information to the Vietnamese establishment that gave them a head start in imposing proper measures to contain the virus outbreak successfully.

In the year 2019, the automotive industry had been the main focus for APT32, this group created fake domains for Toyota Motor Corp and Hyundai Motor Co to try and invade the automaker’s networks. Toyota learned that it was targeted in Vietnam and Thailand through a subsidiary Toyota Tokyo Sales Holdings Inc in Japan.

In this manner, spying on competitors was done to benefit Vietnam. Vietnam has also targeted U.S based businesses that have relevance to Vietnam’s economy, like the consumer products industry.

Vietnamese hackers have mimicked some of China’s cyber-attack methods, but on a smaller scale. Vietnamese hackers, supported by the government, have possibly learned how successful the Chinese have been at building cyber-espionage and cyber-surveillance capabilities which has resulted in Vietnam innovating something new or purchasing their capabilities either for economic interests or outright theft of intellectual property.

In 2017, APT32 had hacked ASEAN’s website during its annual summit, with the same group responsible for compromising websites of ministries or government agencies in Cambodia and the Philippines.

One of the main precursors for Vietnam’s aggressive cyber posture is its distrust with China and the tensions surrounding the South China Sea dispute which involves many countries. In July 2016, Chinese hacker groups attacked Vietnam’s airports and displayed propaganda critical of Vietnam’s claims about the disputed South China Sea. Those incidents have compelled Vietnam, and led to a natural evolution of it in learning to defend itself online and also to go on the offensive when it feels the need.

In early January of 2018, Vietnam officially announce the formation of the Cyberspace Operations Command (COC) which will be a part of the Vietnamese Ministry of National Defence and will look after efforts to protect national sovereignty in Cyberspace and manage IT security.

The Communist Party of Vietnam has taken a strong posture against transgressional foreign policies impacting Vietnamese interests and the rise in cyber activity is a testament to this. Vietnam’s largest wireless carrier Viettel has developed its 5G equipment, empowering the company to avoid the use of fifth-generation communications devices produced and supplied by China’s Huawei Technologies.

The development highlighted Vietnam’s approach to 5G as well as Viettel’s intent to enter the fray of the few companies currently competing in the 5G space, as Viettel is considering equipment exports to many developing countries including Myanmar and Cambodia where it operates subsidiary carriers.

This will only bring direct competition between China and Vietnam in the 5G space and may escalate hack attacks between each other and other sorts of espionage, and justify Vietnam’s pro-active approach in cyberspace which may end up enhancing its cyber prowess.

By Abhilash Halappanavar – InfoSecurity Magazine – June 22, 2020

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