Việt Nam's Digital Threats

Published in October 5, 2015 in Episode 24

On any typical day, Facebook’s nearly one billion users log into their account to find dozens of notifications to read through. On a not so typical day earlier this summer, Vũ Đức Minh came across a more alarming notification.

“I saw notifications stating that my account was logged in from places I had never been to,” says Minh. “Facebook also let me know that there were a lot of different computers still logged into my account. I live in Hà Nội, but the notification showed many other faraway cities in Việt Nam, which means there were multiple people from different places and using different computers logging into my account.”

Minh realized that someone was snooping through his personal details. Minh was lucky, however, as he knew how to spot the fraudulent logins by reviewing his settings. Not many are this savvy when it comes to digital security.

In a recent poll by the digital security website Làm Sao Để Vào  -- or How To Get In -- about 85 percent of the nearly 800 people surveyed know of a friend or have themselves been a victim of Facebook account theft.

Michael Grey, Việt Nam Program Manager at the SecDev Foundation, a cyber-research think tank based in Ottawa, Canada, has a theory of why Vietnamese netizens are so vulnerable online.

“I think the basic thing might just be that internet use has grown so fast among a very young population that don’t have any oversight from parents or teachers,” says Grey. “So for example, here in Canada, my son who’s 10 is learning about the internet before he’s using it. He doesn’t have a Facebook account, but he’s had experts come into his class and talk about online cyber bullying, online threats, adults posing as kids. So it’s in his mind, that this exist.”

Grey says rapid internet adoption among a young and technologically inexperienced population is a reason the country is a breeding ground for both hackers and victims of hacking.

SecDev recognized that many of these young people lack basic digital security awareness. They launched the Chống - or Anti - Hack Facebook campaign earlier this summer to give tips on cyber security.

Ironically, soon after the launch of their campaign, one of Việt Nam’s celebrities became a hacking victim.

“Someone messaged her page and pretended to be friends with someone that she knew and got her to handover the information,” recounts Grey.

That celebrity is popular singer Lệ Quyên. The hacker had gained access to an account belonging to the singer’s friend and convinced Lệ Quyên to hand over her login information. The hacker then posed as the singer and asked her eager and willing fans to send money to help pay for tour costs.

That case wasn’t even a sophisticated hacking. It was just basic identity fraud.

It’s not just Vietnamese Facebook users who are falling victim to account theft. In July, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation sentenced Ngô Minh Hiếu to 13 years in prison for operating a massive hacking and identity theft scheme from his home in Việt Nam. According to the FBI, Hiếu stole the personal information of 200 million U.S. citizens and then sold it to other cybercriminals.

It is this type of cross-border cybercrime that is often leaving global victims emptying their wallets and losing their identity to Việt Nam-based hackers.

Grey points to Việt Nam’s educational system and lack of opportunities as conditions for hackers to flourish.

“IT staff [are] fairly well trained but they are very low paid. It’s a low paying profession in Việt Nam, as far as i understand.”

So you have a bunch of recent graduates who are highly skilled with coding but they maybe don’t have enough good jobs for coders in Việt Nam. And they turn to this out of boredom, frustration. They can make a little extra money from this.
— Michael Grey

The success of Facebook account and identify thefts relies more on oblivious netizens than sophisticated code. Yet more and more, Việt Nam has proven to be a source country of many sophisticated and targeted malware attacks, with the victims being those exposing human rights abuses in Việt Nam.

Eva Galperin, a Global Policy Analyst for the digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation, became one of those victims last January.

“Two of the people at EFF were both targeted with phishing emails which looked as if they were coming from someone at Oxfam, that asked us to take part in a conference in Asia and said, 'If you want more information about this conference what you should do is you should click on these links and you should open these attachments,'” Galperin recalls.

The attachments contained trojans and these trojans were supposed to covertly upload themselves on to our computers and also record everything that we typed and take periodic screenshots and send them back to a command and control server in Vietnamese IP space.
— Eva Galperin

Hackers were effectively trying to spy on EFF’s communications. EFF has long supported internet freedom in Việt Nam by advocating for the release of imprisoned bloggers and raising awareness of the Vietnamese government’s use of policy to suppress digital rights. Galperin had also been in contact with Vietnamese activists. It is for these reasons that EFF and Galperin were specifically targeted, she says.

This is not an isolated incident, as many human rights activists often find themselves the victim of spying by clicking on emails containing malware or spam zombies.

As defined by the technology firm Symantec, spam zombies are remotely-controlled email messages that can be used to deliver malicious code and phishing attempts. It is these attempts, targeted or otherwise, that are leaving many online users vulnerable.

And just how vulnerable?

While rankings vary slightly across different digital security firms, Việt Nam has consistently placed in the top five source countries for spam zombies, along with China, Russia, the United States.

Social engineering, spamming, phishing. Netizens in Việt Nam find themselves at greater risk of digital threats as they increase digital engagement.

So how do you protect yourself? For the average user, it’s coming up with passwords that are stronger than just 1-2-3-4-5 and making sure to take advantage of your accounts’ many security offerings.

For Vũ Đức Minh, just as it was easy for him to lose his account, it was easy to find tech support. Upon realizing he needed to regain control of his Facebook account, he found his solution where one would find all answers: online.