WASHINGTON – A Vietnam-based hacking group is learning from China’s playbook, using increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks to spy on competitors and help Vietnam catch up to global competitors, according to cybersecurity experts.
In the last two years, the group, which is believed to be tied to the Vietnamese government and known as APT32, has ramped up its cyberespionage, particularly in Southeast Asia, according to the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike Inc. The hacking group’s exploits have included intellectual property theft, the firm said, the same activity for which Chinese hackers are infamous.
The automotive industry has been a key target for APT32, according to multiple experts. For example, APT32 created fake domains for Toyota Motor Corp. and Hyundai Motor Co. in an attempt to infiltrate the automakers’ networks, according to a researcher familiar with the matter who requested anonymity discussing companies. In March, Toyota discovered that it was targeted in Vietnam and Thailand and through a subsidiary — Toyota Tokyo Sales Holdings Inc — in Japan, according to spokesman Brian Lyons. A Toyota official, who requested anonymity discussing the hacking group, confirmed that APT32 was responsible.
Vietnam has also targeted American businesses relevant to Vietnam’s economy, including the consumer products industry, for years, according to experts. “What’s changed more recently, and this is consistent with broader trends in the cyberthreat actor landscape, is that they are getting better and better at it,” said Andrew Grotto, a fellow at Stanford University who served as the senior director for cybersecurity policy on the National Security Council from late 2015 to mid-2017. “They’re becoming more adept at developing their own tools, while at the same time tapping the global malware market for commercial tools.”
The uptick in Vietnam’s economic espionage activity, which began in 2012 and has spiked since 2018 according to CrowdStrike, comes as the Trump administration seeks to curb what many believe has been rampant intellectual property theft by China — former National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander, who served under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, has called it the “greatest transfer of wealth in history.”
The Vietnamese hackers have emulated some of China’s cyber methods, albeit on a significantly smaller scale, the experts said.
Vietnamese government hackers have likely “seen how successful the Chinese have been at building cyber-espionage capabilities and cybersurveillance capabilities” according to Eric Rosenbach, co-director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and a former assistant secretary of defense for global security under Obama. As a result, they may be building out or purchasing their own capabilities “either for economic interests or outright theft of intellectual property,” he said.
The Vietnamese foreign ministry and Vietnamese Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to requests for comment. A government spokeswoman previously said allegations that state-aligned hackers targeted foreign carmakers were “unfounded.” A representative for the U.S. State Department declined comment on allegations about economic espionage by Vietnam.
A Hyundai representative didn’t comment on whether it had been targeted by the Vietnamese hacking group, but said that the company “promptly detects and responds to the events of its IT securities.”
Vietnam is part of a growing group of countries — outside of major cyberplayers such as Russia and China — that are developing and buying cybercapabilities, according former government officials.
“One of the trends that we tracked when I was in the White House was both the broadening of the number of countries that had active cyber programs,” said Michael Daniel, who served as the cybersecurity coordinator on the National Security Council under Obama and is now president and chief executive officer of the non-profit group Cyber Threat Alliance. “The ones that have been investing in cyber like Vietnam are continuing to grow in capability.”
Cybersecurity experts offered different, and sometimes conflicting, reasons to explain the hacking group’s activities, from stealing intellectual property to improve Vietnamese products to gaining a competitive edge in negotiations to ensuring foreign corporations are complying with national regulations.
The cybersecurity firm FireEye Inc. has been tracking APT32 — which is also known as Ocean Lotus and Ocean Buffalo — since 2012, according to Nick Carr, a director at the firm. In 2017, his team investigated a series of hacks in the U.S., Germany and multiple countries in Asia and found that the group had spent at least three years targeting foreign governments, journalists, dissidents and “foreign corporations with a vested interest in Vietnam’s manufacturing, consumer products and hospitality sectors.”
“APT32 leverages a unique suite of fully-featured malware, in conjunction with commercially-available tools, to conduct targeted operations that are aligned with Vietnamese state interests,” FireEye reported.
Ongoing tactics by APT32 appear to include registering domains that resemble car companies — a move which can precede phishing attacks, in which credentials are stolen by hackers in order to access internal networks, said John Hultquist, FireEye’s director of intelligence analysis.
“Most recently, we’ve seen suspected APT32 domain registration activity designed to resemble automotive firms,” Hultquist said. “This ongoing registration activity affirms APT32’s continuing interest in foreign automakers doing business in Vietnam.”
APT32 recently used Facebook to target individuals who are active in Vietnamese politics, according to the Slovakia-based cybersecurity firm Eset. In this attack, APT32 hackers sent Facebook messages, or Facebook pages, containing what appeared to be a photo album. When victims scrolled through the album, one of the many photos was in fact a malicious document that installed malware on the computer, said Marc-Etienne M.Leveille, a researcher at the firm.
Targeting dissidents has been part of a broad surveillance campaign that has included hacking into websites popular with politically active citizens and then using those sites to track them and collect information, said Steven Adair, founder of the cybersecurity firm Volexity, Inc. APT32 conducted “a very sophisticated and extremely widespread mass digital surveillance and attack campaign” targeting Asian countries, the media, groups associated with human rights and civil society as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Volexity reported.
While Vietnamese hacking of corporations appears to be on the rise, FireEye has seen a major decline in China’s IP theft against corporations — even as the U.S. trade talks with China have emphasized negotiating an end to it. “From China’s perspective, we’ve definitely seen a massive drop off of that,” said Hultquist of FireEye.
But Vietnam is at a significantly earlier stage in development and, like China did years ago, has turned to cyberespionage as a means of becoming more competitive, said Adam Meyers, CrowdStrike’s vice president of intelligence. “This is kind of like a mini-China story,” he said.