Internet giant Google says it has identified another international cyberattack—only this one isn’t aimed at ferreting out information about Chinese human rights activits, but at suppressing criticism of a controversial, Chinese-led bauxite mining operation in Vietnam. According to Google, the attack is “less sophisticated” then the operation that compromised Google’s systems in China: the malware has been distributed with Vietnamese keyboard language software, and is being used to both spy on folks using that software as well as take over their computers to participate in distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks. And those attacks aren’t aimed at businesses, banks, or Internet companies like Google: instead they’re being used to silence critics of a bauxite mining operation in Vietnam in partnership with a Chinese state-run corporation.
“The malware infected the computers of potentially tens of thousands of users who downloaded Vietnamese keyboard language software and possibly other legitimate software that was altered to infect users,” wrote Google security team member Nell Mehta, on the company security blog. “While the malware itself was not especially sophisticated, it has nonetheless been used for damaging purposes.”
The attack serves as an indication of the changing face of malware: where malware is typically used to take over vulnerable Internet-connected computers and trawl for email addresses, passwords, account numbers, and other sensitive information that is in turn sold to cybercriminals, this instance marks a use of malware for political purposes, suppression of information, and manipulation of public opinion.
Google if, of course, currently embroiled in international intrigue with China, following an attack on Google services last January targeting human rights activists. Google has since stopped censoring Chinese language search results and moved it Chinese search efforts to Hong Kong; in recent days several Google services in China have seen disruptions.
The bauxite mining issue is particularly charged in Vietnam: the countries are involved in a territorial dispute over portions of the South China Sea, and relations have not been historically rosy: China invaded Vietnam in 1979, and Vietnam was essentially a tributary state to China for a millennia.
Bauxite is a key mineral in producing aluminum. Vietnam is generally regarded as second only to Guinea and Australia in terms of the size of its bauxite reserves.