Hackers to Silence Critics, Experts Warn
March 5, 2021
An international advocacy
group's claim that the Vietnamese government has tapped hackers to
target activists shows that the communist Southeast Asian state is
widening the use of technology to quash its biggest opponents,
Ocean Lotus, a shadowy group suspected of working with the
Vietnamese government, is "behind a sustained campaign of spyware
attacks," London-based Amnesty International said in a statement on
February 24 following two years of research. It says the attacks
surfaced in 2014 and targeted rights activists and the private
sector, inside Vietnam as well as abroad.
The hack attacks would signal a growing use of technology to muzzle
strong vocal opponents of Vietnam's officials, country observers
say. Police already use internet trolls and authorities have been
known to damage people's Facebook accounts, said James Gomez,
regional director of the Asia Centre, a Bangkok-based think tank.
The Cybersecurity Law decree that came into force in 2019 helps the
government build evidence against naysayers by ordering online
service providers such as social media platforms to do some of its
"Social media manipulation and intimidation forms part of Vietnam's
set of tools to neutralize online criticism as well as activists who
use social media to mobilize for action," Gomez said. "The
identities of these online trolls who engage in social media
manipulation are not publicly known but are largely thought to be
aligned with the state and the Ministry of Public Security."
Vietnam does not censor specific websites as its communist neighbor
China does, nor does it hunt down every criticism vented against it
online. Unless the country faces "mass mobilization on a national
scale" against the ruling party, the government will stay with
today's approach of targeting dissent case by case, Gomez said.
But authorities in Hanoi hope to sustain an image that they are
competently managing the economy that's fueled by factory investment
but was damaged by a slump in global demand last year during the
The government wants to "control" criticism inside and outside the
country, said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director with the New
York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
"It's a dirty tricks government that will use whatever capacity it
has in terms of tech and hacking to go after its opponents,"
The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected hacking
allegations last year when cybersecurity firm FireEye also
identified a government connection to Ocean Lotus.
"This is groundless information," deputy ministry spokesperson Ngo
Toan Thang told a news conference in May, as quoted on the
ministry's website. "Vietnam strictly bans all cyber-attacks against
organizations and individuals in any form."
The ministry's English-language website does not address Amnesty
Amnesty International's Security Lab said in the February 24
statement it had found Ocean Lotus's influence in phishing emails
sent to two Vietnamese "human rights" advocates. One lives in
Germany, the statement says, and the other was a Vietnamese
nongovernmental organization in the Philippines.
"The hacking group has been repeatedly identified by cybersecurity
firms as targeting Vietnamese political dissidents, foreign
governments and companies," the statement adds.
French journalism advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said in
2018 Vietnam had appointed 10,000 "cyber-troops" to fight online
dissent. The journalism group called the deployment an "army of
internet trolls" aimed at attacking independent media outlets.
showed last year they can quickly shutter social media accounts
registered in foreign countries.
After Vietnamese blogger Bui Thi Minh Hang livestreamed an interview
with a woman whose 3-year-old child was exposed to tear gas, her
posts quickly disappeared from Facebook and YouTube and she was
arrested hours later. She lost access to her accounts.
Jack Nguyen, a partner at the business advisory firm Mazars in Ho
Chi Minh City, suggests that internet commentators stick to issues
rather than targeting the state or the Communist Party. Pollution
and drought are acceptable topics, he said, and it's even OK to
suggest policy changes.
"Don't criticize the party," Nguyen said. "You can criticize some of
the policies but don't do anything that they can say that it's