Google, fresh off a dispute with China over censorship and intrusion from hackers, says it has identified cyber-attacks aimed at silencing critics of a controversial, Chinese-backed bauxite mining project in Vietnam.
In attacks it described as similar to but less sophisticated than those at the core of its spat with China, Google said malicious software was used to infect “potentially tens of thousands of computers,” broadly targeting Vietnamese speaking computer users around the world.
Infected machines had been used to spy on their owners and to attack blogs containing messages of political dissent, wrote Neel Mehta of the company’s security team in a post late Tuesday on Google’s online security blog.
McAfee, the computer security firm, said in a separate blog posting that it believed “the perpetrators may have political motivations and may have some allegiance to the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”
It added: “This incident underscores that not every attack is motivated by data theft or money. This is likely the latest example of hacktivism and politically motivated cyberattacks, which are on the rise.”
Google said that while the malware itself was not especially sophisticated, “it has nonetheless been used for damaging purposes.”
“Specifically, these attacks have tried to squelch opposition to bauxite mining efforts in Vietnam, an important and emotionally charged issue in the country.”
Bauxite is a key mineral in making aluminum and one of Vietnam’s most valuable natural resources. Plans by the Vietnamese government to exploit bauxite in the Central Highlands region, in partnership with a Chinese state-run company, have generated much local criticism, including from a well-known war hero, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap.
General Giap and other opponents say the project will be ruinous to the environment, displace ethnic minority populations and threaten the south-east Asian country’s national security with an influx of Chinese workers and economic leverage.
The role of China in the bauxite project also has stirred up anger in a nation that still fears its bigger neighbor: Vietnam was a tributary state of China for 1,000 years and was invaded by China in 1979, and the two countries continue to joust for sovereignty in the South China Sea.