Alleged Vietnam spyware targeting foreign officials 'unacceptable': EU
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."
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
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.
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.
happen to be in Vietnam this week to consider lifting of seafood sanctions.
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
France, which last
month detained a journalist investigating the country's surveillance regime, was
among governments Der Spiegel reported had ineffective export controls on
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.
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
"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."
government did not reply to a request for comment.
deploying Predator. "We don't know this kind of technology," the communications
ministry told Nikkei.
by Cheng Ting-Fang in Taipei and Nana Shibata in Jakarta.