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EFF claims Vietnam targeted its staff with spear phishing attack

Is this Chinese soft power in action?

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Advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has warned of an uptick in targeted malware attacks by “state-aligned actors” in Vietnam against foreign activists and journalists.

In a blog post this week the group complained of a new campaign targeting its own staff – the first of its kind.

A suspicious looking email inviting EFF activists to an Oxfam conference in Asia was found to contain malicious links and attachments, with the malware in question detected by just one AV vendor in 47, according to VirusTotal.

The same malware was apparently sent to a Vietnam-based AP reporter, this time in an email purporting to come from Human Rights Watch and containing a link to a white paper.

Although the emails contain dodgy grammar and are fairly easy to spot as fake, they have clearly been crafted to appeal to their specific targets.

EFF didn’t elaborate on the end goal for these specific attacks although it said that the related malware and C&C server “reveals a relationship to earlier campaigns targeting Vietnamese activists”.

Such previous campaigns have involved malware and RATs designed to spy on their targets.

Vietnamese “state-aligned” actors aren’t just targeting foreign hacks and activists now but also homegrown dissidents who’ve since moved abroad.

EFF attributed the attacks to a group known as “Sinh Tử Lệnh”, which has been active since 2009, but which has hitherto mainly focused on homegrown targets.

The group is sometimes claimed to be comprised of Chinese attackers but is “more likely the work of Vietnamese targeting Vietnamese”, EFF added.

The rights group continued:

EFF is greatly disturbed to see targeted malware campaigns hitting so close to home. While it is clear that this group has been targeted members of the Vietnamese diaspora for some time, these campaigns indicate that journalists and US activists are also under attack. And while longtime activists and journalists might expect to be targeted by a state they regularly criticise, it appears that a single blog post is enough to make you a target for Vietnamese spying.

Like China, Vietnam is keen to reap the economic rewards that come from embracing e-commerce, software development and ambitious ICT projects, but the one-party state is also prepared to censor, spy on and imprison anyone using the internet in a way which could challenge its rule.

So far the cyber attacks observed by EFF have been nothing like the same scale or sophistication as those seen in China, but the group is right to be concerned of what it may foreshadow.

Last year the government passed Decree 72 and Decree 174, for example, which introduce strict penalties on the use of social media “against the state”. ®

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