Alleged Vietnam spyware targeting foreign officials 'unacceptable': EU

Cyber surveillance reports come amid upgrade of relations with Washington


LIEN HOANG, Nikkei staff writer

NIKKEI ASIA | October 16, 2023


HO CHI MINH CITY -- Foreign officials have expressed concern that Vietnam allegedly tried to surveil politicians' and reporters' phones in the U.S., Taiwan and the EU, telling Nikkei Asia such a cyber breach would be "unacceptable."

Investigators, including journalists and Amnesty International, said Vietnam targeted public figures abroad using spyware called Predator, which is similar to the better-known Pegasus. Amnesty listed 58 instances of attempted surveillance that do not seem to have succeeded. If executed, the cyber actions would have given hackers access to a person's phone camera, microphone and content.

Brussels said it is asking Hanoi about the accusation, which the U.S. said it takes "seriously." France said illegal tracking "cannot be tolerated." Canadian research body Citizen Lab previously indicated Indonesia and the Philippines also may have used the spy program.

Vietnam has a history of reported cyber attacks against rights activists, sometimes using lessons from neighboring China. But according to last week's revelations, the authoritarian state recently focused on officials overseas. On a visit last month, U.S. President Joe Biden upgraded ties with Hanoi, which both sides say includes cooperation in many fields including "the growing issue of cyber scam operations."

Yet while the upgrade was being negotiated, Vietnamese spies sent malicious links to U.S. lawmakers via social media to compromise their devices, said the Washington Post, which is a member of the media consortium investigating the "Predator Files."

"The effort to deepen ties with Washington would have made insight into U.S. thinking on China and Taiwan important for Vietnam," the Post wrote last Monday.

Another consortium member, Germany's Der Spiegel, reported Vietnam had a 5.6 million euro ($5.9 million) contract to buy the malware. Citizen Lab said its findings aligned with those of Amnesty, which also named as targets foreign analysts and activists, Taiwan's president and EU officials probing Vietnam's illegal fishing.

"We are raising our concerns stemming from the report with the Vietnamese government," a European Commission spokesperson told Nikkei. "Any attempt to illegally access data of citizens, including journalists and political opponents, is unacceptable."

Nikkei Asia has contacted the Vietnamese government seeking comment but had not received a response as of publication.

Commission officials happen to be in Vietnam this week to consider lifting of seafood sanctions.

"Passive surveillance" can help fight crime but only within "a legitimate framework that respects the rule of law," a spokeswoman for the French embassy in Hanoi told Nikkei. "Any action deviating from this framework cannot be tolerated and is subject to sanctions."

France, which last month detained a journalist investigating the country's surveillance regime, was among governments Der Spiegel reported had ineffective export controls on spyware.

"Export authorizations for dual-use goods are the result of a strict interministerial process" to comply with "international and European commitments, particularly in terms of respect for international law and human rights," the spokeswoman said.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's spokeswoman Lin Yu-Chan told Nikkei the leader's social media accounts currently do not show comments linked to Predator.

"We presume that they have all been deleted," she said. "However, we will continue to monitor and prioritize relevant cybersecurity controls."

The U.S. did not comment on Hanoi's reported use of spyware by a company on the U.S. Entity List, which restricts exports. The company, Intellexa, and Vietnam's foreign ministry did not reply to requests for comment.

"We take any allegations of misuse of commercial spyware seriously," a U.S. embassy official in Hanoi told Nikkei. "As a result of the upgrade of our bilateral relationship, the United States will continue to have a forum to address key issues -- both opportunities and challenges -- directly with the government of Vietnam."

The Southeast Asian country does not have as developed a surveillance state as China, though it is a key market for Chinese technology such as CCTV cameras. The one-party states work together closely, with Vietnam sending officials to China "for seminars on its system of censorship and surveillance" and thereafter passing similar cybersecurity laws, a 2020 report by U.S. Senate staff said.

Wilhelm Vosse, a professor researching cyber security at International Christian University in Tokyo, told Nikkei that the EU and Japanese governments do digital training with Vietnam.

"One aim of these projects is to strengthen its digital infrastructure and its competitive power in the digital economy and to make Vietnam less dependent on Chinese manufacturers and potentially cyber-surveillance technology," Vosse said. "It is also no secret that Vietnam is one of the countries that has been developing offensive cyber weapons."

The Philippine government did not reply to a request for comment.

Indonesia denied deploying Predator. "We don't know this kind of technology," the communications ministry told Nikkei.

Additional reporting by Cheng Ting-Fang in Taipei and Nana Shibata in Jakarta.



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