Small Countries’ New Weapon Against Goliaths: Hacking

Small Countries’ New Weapon Against Goliaths: Hacking

FireEye, a company that deals with large network breaches, said it had watched a Vietnamese group known as OceanLotus target foreign companies since at least 2014. Credit Beck Diefenbach/ReutersPhoto by: Beck Diefenbach/Reuters

In a 2014 blog post, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group in California, documented what it said appeared to be a state-affiliated Vietnamese hacking operation that had targeted a range of people critical of the government, including an Associated Press reporter in Vietnam and a pro-democracy blogger in California. FireEye said OceanLotus employed a similar type of email phishing, using messages to bait victims into downloading malicious software or turning over their user names and passwords.

 The report also documented the group’s hacking of companies from Vietnam, China, Germany, the Philippines, Britain and the United States. It did not analyze specific breaches in detail, but it said one European manufacturing company had been compromised in 2014 before building a factory in Vietnam. It also said that OceanLotus malware had been detected last year on the network of a global hospitality developer that was planning to expand into the country.
 Ben Wootliff, who oversees digital security at the business consultancy Control Risks, said online crime was a risk for local and international companies in Vietnam for a number of reasons, including a rapid pace of digitalization and an improvisational business environment. “There is a lack of desire, awareness and capability to implement decent cyberhygiene,” he said.
 The European Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam and the American Chamber of Commerce in Hanoi said hacking was a growing problem for businesses in the country.

“More and more companies have to hire experts and train the staff to understand the security risks that are part of their everyday working routine,” said Amanuel Flobbe, the chairman of the Information and Communications Technology Sector Committee at the European Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam.

Digital security experts say private-sector cybercriminals or activists are responsible for much of the hacking in Southeast Asia. But FireEye said OceanLotus was notable because it appeared to be state-sponsored and used some unique malware that was not commercially available.

 By nature asymmetrical, hacking is a natural outlet for smaller countries to confront larger rivals. OceanLotus, for example, has attacked corporate and government entities in China that were focused mostly on oceanic development and fishing, according to a report by the Chinese internet security company Qihoo 360. That may indicate that Vietnam was seeking to learn more about Chinese plans in the South China Sea, where the two countries have disputes over islands and reefs.
The proliferation of government- and military-run hacking in developing countries also raises a broader prospect of what rules should apply to cyberconflicts. This year, the president of Microsoft, Brad Smith, called for a digital Geneva Convention to push back against a raft of political hackings that have targeted elections in the United States and Europe. Reports on other hacking efforts, like United States officials’ targeting of North Korea’s nuclear program and North Korean hackers’ attacks on Sony Pictures, have also heightened concerns.

Mr. Wellsmore said state-sponsored hacking groups in Asia were increasingly using multimillion-dollar tools to achieve their goals.

“That sort of level of sophistication is generally nation-state-sponsored,” he said, “because they’re the ones that have that strategic interest and are willing to invest that sort of money.”

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