Cyber Insecurities: Vietnam Takes Aim at Online Dissent

A woman uses a smartphone in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2013. (Nathan O’Nions/Flickr)

On 5 May, a Vietnamese court sentenced land rights activist Can Thi Theu and her son Trinh Ba Tu to eight years in prison for disseminating materials “that aim to oppose the State”. The ruling came nearly a year after the two activists, along with another of Can Thi Theu’s sons, were arrested for publishing information on Facebook about a deadly land rights clash in January 2020 in the rural commune of Dong Tam, just outside Hanoi.

The jail terms for the mother and son arrive as activists and citizen journalists in Vietnam face renewed restrictions on freedom of expression—a situation observers say forms part of a broader pattern of tougher policing of online spheres as lawmakers tighten legislation on internet freedoms. 

Activists saw these heightened restrictions put into effect during the Communist Party’s National Congress in February, where General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong was appointed to an unprecedented third term, and during the National Assembly elections in early April, where the party swore in three other top officials. Newly appointed Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh is a former deputy head of the Ministry of Public Security, which monitors activists and dissidents. 

“Since the Cybersecurity Law passed in 2018, freedom of expression in cyberspace has been getting much worse. …The trend of criminalising online activity has become more obvious.”

In March, in between the two events, rights activist Thao Dinh says she was summoned by police twice and interrogated for a combined 25 hours over her communications about Vietnam’s upcoming general election on 23 May and her links with other activists. 

“I believe it is part of a broader picture, which is a commitment of the party to sweep civil society in Vietnam,” Thao tells New Naratif

In March, Vietnamese authorities arrested two citizen journalists, who planned to run as independent candidates in the election this month, and one medical doctor. All three were known for their online criticism of the Vietnamese government and were charged under Article 117 of the Criminal Code—the same law that landed Can Thi Theu and her sons in prison.

But even equipped with Article 117, the Vietnamese government is seeking to enforce legislation that expands the Communist Party’s control over online communications, the most prominent of which is the Cybersecurity Law.

“Since the Cybersecurity Law passed in 2018, freedom of expression in cyberspace has been getting much worse,” Thao says. “Many activities considered tolerable before now are not anymore. The trend of criminalising online activity has become more obvious. Many activists and journalists have been arrested for speaking out online on social issues.”

New Laws to Stifle Dissent

Styled by critics as mimicking China’s repressive internet censorship, Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law requires internet companies like Google and Facebook to set up local servers and hand over user data to the government. More importantly, the bill criminalises criticism of the government online and demands tech companies remove content deemed “anti-state”. 

While neither Facebook nor Google has complied with requests to establish Vietnam-based servers, both have been forced to censor posts critical of the Vietnamese state, contributing to a marked rise in the number of political arrests since the law’s introduction. 

In December, Amnesty International accused Facebook and Google of aiding Vietnam’s systematic repression of human rights defenders and activists, including former prisoners of conscience, lawyers, journalists and writers. The rights group also reported that Vietnam had imprisoned a record 170 prisoners of conscience, 40% of whom were behind bars for their social media use. 

One example is the case of Bui Van Thuan, a popular blogger who posted on Facebook a prediction that police would raid Dong Tam commune in January 2020. On 8 January 2020, Facebook informed him that access to his profile would be restricted in Vietnam “due to legal requirements” in the country. The next day, 3,000 police raided Dong Tam at dawn and, in the ensuing conflict, three policemen and the village leader were killed.  

Facebook did not remove the restrictions from Thuan’s account until eight months later, shortly after the murder trial held over the deadly clash concluded. Two brothers, sons of the village leader who died in the battle, were sentenced to death. A Facebook spokesperson said Thuan’s account was blocked in error, and the timing of the restrictions they placed on his account was coincidental.

“The Vietnamese authorities have arrived at a point where they recognise that they could not act like China and ban foreign tech giants altogether.”

A Vietnamese rights worker, who asked to remain anonymous citing the sensitivity of the issue, says although the Cybersecurity Law went into effect in January 2019, businesses were given 12 months to comply. She adds, however, that the government received significant pushback from both local and international companies, and that Vietnam is yet to issue a draft decree of the official guidelines for implementing the law—originally meant to be finalised in March 2020—which could bring stricter enforcement.

Jeff Paine, managing director of the Asia Internet Coalition, which lobbies governments on behalf of major firms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, tells New Naratif that the Cybersecurity Law “is likely to blunt the growth of Vietnam’s digital economy, dampen foreign investment and restrict opportunities for local businesses to grow domestically and globally”.

Severe pushback to the Cybersecurity Law, according to the rights worker, prompted authorities to change course. Rather than issuing guidelines for implementing the law, they began revising existing decrees and proposed a new data privacy law that would achieve many of the same ends as the Cybersecurity Law, including the requirement for foreign businesses to store data locally.

If the new data privacy law is approved, international companies wishing to do online business in Vietnam will need to obtain a licence from government cybersecurity agents. Moreover, the rights worker adds, for foreign businesses and civil society groups to collect any data the government deems sensitive, even via a Google form, they would need prior approval—and thus surveillance—from the government.

Facebook’s Uneasy Popularity 

Despite Vietnam’s ever-tightening grip on internet freedoms, social media giants like Facebook and YouTube continue to thrive in the country. A recent report on digital trends in Vietnam found that just under 70 million Vietnamese—of a total population of 98 million people—were online in January 2021. Of these internet users, 92% of those aged between 16 and 64 visited YouTube, with nearly the same percentage heading to Facebook. 

Facebook earns nearly US$1 billion annually from Vietnam—a figure that’s likely to rise as the country’s expanding digital economy remains one of the fastest-growing in the world. Homegrown social media platforms like Lotus, meanwhile, have failed to gain a significant foothold in the market due to the dominance of Facebook, which thousands of businesses nationwide rely on for reaching customers. 

Teenagers use smartphones in a Hanoi park in 2016. (Vietnam Stock Images/Shutterstock)
Teenagers use smartphones in a Hanoi park in 2016. Credit: Vietnam Stock Images/Shutterstock

Nonetheless, headlines regularly surface detailing the jailing of citizen journalists as a direct consequence of their posts on Facebook. The site remains a popular platform for activists and bloggers to broadcast their critiques of the Vietnamese state, despite the risks. 

“For millions of Vietnamese netizens, Facebook was the great hope for helping to build a free and open society—and it still has the power to be,” Amnesty said in a statement in December.

Facebook’s popularity as a platform for dissent has elicited severe treatment by Vietnamese authorities. In early 2020, the government slowed Facebook traffic to a crawl, forcing the company to agree to censor “anti-state” posts. The following August, the government threatened to shut down Facebook if it did not meet new censorship demands.

In an email to New Naratif, Facebook said they pushed back against requests to block profiles and pages, and do not comply with every government request to restrict content.

In late 2020, Facebook took the highly unusual step of publicly identifying a state-linked hacking group.

The Prying Eyes of Ocean Lotus

Ocean Lotus, a hacking group long suspected of being backed by the Vietnamese government, represents a major component of the nation’s suspected online armory. 

Facebook publicly identified Ocean Lotus in December 2020, tracking them to CyberOne Security, an IT firm in Ho Chi Minh City. The group’s targets included Vietnamese dissidents and human rights activists living in Vietnam and abroad, foreign journalists and news agencies, NGOs, a wide range of businesses, and the governments of Cambodia and Laos. 

To ensnare its targets, the group compromised websites and forged their own fake sites to propagate malware, enticed targets to download malicious apps on the Google Play Store and forged fake personas online. This latter tactic involved posing as rights activists, businessmen or even romantic lures. 

“The latest activity we investigated and disrupted has the hallmarks of a well-resourced and persistent operation focusing on many targets at once, while obfuscating their origin,” Facebook said in December. 

The Vietnamese government says it is not behind the group, while CyberOne security also denied Facebook’s claims.  

“It is inescapable that the Ministry of Public Security and other government agencies will avail themselves of evolving technology to step up surveillance of the general population…and combat criminal activity as well as political dissent.”

Also known as APT32 (Advanced Persistent Threat), Ocean Lotus was accused by the United States cybersecurity firm FireEye of hacking servers in Wuhan at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, a move some believe was fueled by Vietnam’s deep distrust of China and may have informed Vietnam’s swift response to the global health crisis. 

Benjamin Read, senior manager for cyber espionage analysis in FireEye’s intelligence unit, says there is little doubt Ocean Lotus, which has been active for at least nine years, is backed by the Vietnamese state. 

“Our assessment is based on multiple factors, including the targeting of individuals who would be of particular interest to Vietnam’s government, including dissidents,” Read tells New Naratif

Another weapon in Vietnam’s cyber arsenal is known as dư luận viên, meaning “public opinion shapers”. These are squads of nationalist social media users recruited by the Communist Party’s Department of Propaganda to harass or intimidate state critics online. Dư luận viên weaponise Facebook and other social media platforms by mass-reporting targets for alleged violations of community standards. They then plant evidence of rule-breaking by posting graphically violent or pornographic comments, which can lead to targets getting their accounts suspended.

Since dư luận viên use authentic profiles and do not necessarily violate Facebook’s rules on an individual level, the company struggles to shut them down. 

A Facebook account seen by New Naratif publicly shared a logo indicating the user’s membership of the “Vietnam Electronic Warfare Unit”—an apparent example of dư luận viên. Nearly every post by the user cites news stories about criminal behaviour by foreigners in Vietnam, followed by captions like #ForeignCriminalGetOutOfVietnam

According to the rights worker, the membership and resources of the dư luận viên have increased over the last few years, ostensibly coinciding with the military’s creation, in 2017, of Force 47—a 10,000-strong cyber warfare unit with the sole purpose of combating criticism of the government online.

No Need for a Firewall

In February, the Communist Party appointed Lieutenant General Nguyen Trong Nghia, who previously oversaw the creation of Force 47, as head of Vietnam’s Central Propaganda Department. With Nghia’s promotion, both the country’s communications and propaganda departments are now run by senior military figures—a setup that has raised concern for critical journalists in the country. 

A 2021 global ranking of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders put Vietnam sixth from the bottom out of 180 nations, and just two places above China. But even as the country continues to invest in systems to control the flow of information, a China-style firewall remains unlikely, both because the government lacks the technical prowess to pull off such a move, and because its successful co-optation of Facebook and Google renders such a firewall unnecessary, according to Dien Nguyen An Luong, a visiting fellow with the Media, Technology and Society Programme of Singapore’s ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

“Vietnam’s lack of political and technological wherewithal and limited homegrown social media platforms have throttled its efforts to match China in creating a ‘national internet’ meant for enforced blocking of Western social media platforms,” Dien says.

“The Vietnamese authorities have arrived at a point where they recognise that they could not act like China and ban foreign tech giants altogether.”

Domestic hacking attempts, meanwhile, are on the rise. Carl Thayer, a regional security specialist, tells New Naratif that, according to government statistics, Vietnam saw a 300% rise in data breaches of commercial enterprises in 2019 over the previous year and a 104% rise in hacking of information systems over the same period.

“It is inescapable that the Ministry of Public Security and other government agencies will avail themselves of evolving technology to step up surveillance of the general population…and combat criminal activity as well as political dissent,” Thayer says. 

Activist Thao Dinh agrees, saying Nguyen Phu Trong’s re-election for a third term as general secretary of the Communist Party means authorities will renew their focus on muzzling state critics, including activists and journalists.  

At a press conference held to close Vietnam’s National Congress in February, Trong, a former journalist, repeatedly praised the acumen and “keen eyes” of reporters, saying: “You are all important to our cause.” 

Later on, he added: “Punishments are necessary for all those who go against the guiding principles of the party.”

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