Chinese Hackers Targeting Southeast Asia Nations Likely State-Sponsored, U.S. Company Says

A United States cybersecurity company announced findings Wednesday showing that Chinese hackers have targeted governments across Southeast Asia and that the intrusions are likely state-sponsored.

Insikt Group, a team of threat researchers under cybersecurity company Recorded Future, said it identified over 400 servers in the region that had communicated with custom malware families like Chinoxy and FunnyDream over the past nine months.

Affected countries include Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. The malware compromised everything from militaries to central government offices.

Insikt told the Associated Press it believes the targeting is state-sponsored because it "aligns with the political and economic goals of the Chinese government."

"We believe this activity is highly likely to be a state actor as the observed long-term targeted intrusions into high-value government and political targets is consistent with cyberespionage activity, coupled with identified technical links to known Chinese state-sponsored activity," the company said.

Insikt said all of the affected countries were notified of the findings in October. It also believes that some of the security breaches could still be happening.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has not yet responded to a request for comment from AP. At the moment, it is not known what specific data has been compromised.

Hanoi, Vietnam, National Assembly building
State-sponsored Chinese hackers have been broadly targeting government and private-sector organizations across Southeast Asia, including those closely involved with Beijing on infrastructure development projects, according to a report released Wednesday by a U.S.-based private cybersecurity company. Above, people ride a moped pass the National Assembly building in Hanoi, Vietnam, on December 8, 2021. Hau Dinh/AP Photo

In the past, Chinese authorities have consistently denied any form of state-sponsored hacking, instead saying China itself is a major target of cyberattacks.

Specific targets included the Thai prime minister's office and the Thai army, the Indonesian and Philippine navies, Vietnam's national assembly and the central office of its Communist Party, and Malaysia's Ministry of Defense, according to the Insikt Group.

Of the cyber intrusions it tracked, Insikt Group said Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam were the top three targeted countries.

"Throughout 2021, Insikt Group tracked a persistent cyber espionage campaign targeting the prime minister's offices, military entities and government departments of rival South China Sea claimants Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines," the company said. "Additional victims during the same period include organizations in Indonesia and Thailand."

Much of that campaign was attributed to a group being tracked under the temporary identifier of Threat Activity Group 16, or TAG-16, Insikt Group said.

"We also identified evidence suggesting that TAG-16 shares custom capabilities with the [China's] People's Liberation Army-linked activity group RedFoxtrot," the group said.

Some of the information on Indonesia was disclosed in a previous report from the Insikt Group in September, and Indonesian authorities said at he time they had found no evidence their computers had been compromised.

Insikt Group said the earlier activity directed at Indonesia from malware servers operated by the "Mustang Panda" group gradually stopped in mid-August, following a second notification the company provided to the country's authorities.

Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said he did not have any information regarding Insikt Group's new findings that the ministry had also been targeted.

Similarly, Thailand's army said it had no immediate information that its cybersecurity team had detected any intrusions into its servers.

Colonel Ramon Zagala, spokesman for the Philippine armed forces, said the military had not yet seen Insikt's report but that "it takes all kinds of potential attacks seriously and has measures in place to protect our vital systems."

Insikt Group said it had also detected activity in Cambodia and Laos believed linked to Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative to build ports, railways and other facilities across Asia, Africa and the Pacific.

Poorer countries have welcomed the initiative, but some have complained they are left owing too much to Chinese banks.

Just last week, Laos inaugurated a $5.9 billion Chinese-built railway linking the country with southern China.

"Historically, many Chinese cyber espionage operations have heavily overlapped with projects and countries strategically important to the BRI," the Insikt Group noted, referring to the Belt and Road Initiative.

Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said the country's own agencies had not detected any hacking of servers noted by Insikt Group.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Malaysia, Prime Minister
It is not yet known what information was compromised in a nine-month series of hacking across Southeast Asia by Chinese hackers. Above, morning traffic moves in front of the main building of the Malaysian prime minister's office in Putrajaya on December 8, 2021.