On 3 May 2021, I wrote a communication jointly with three other UN experts to the Government of Viet Nam regarding a cyber-attack that had been carried out against civil society organisation the Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment (VOICE). The attack was reportedly carried out by a government-backed hacking group named Ocean Lotus.
VOICE is a non-governmental human rights and civil society organisation that advocates for the protection of human rights and the promotion of fundamental freedoms in Vietnam. They directly engage with civil society projects in the country and work on third-country resettlement for Vietnamese refugees and asylum seekers.
On 29 April 2020, an email containing spyware in attachment was sent to VOICE. If downloaded, the spyware would have opened a decoy document and downloaded a toolkit, which would have enabled the attackers to gain full access of VOICE’s computer, including all its data and correspondences
On 18 April 2020, 11 days prior to the cyber-attack, VOICE received a Google alert informing them that several of the organisation’s Google accounts had been compromised and hackers, who are now alleged to have been backed by the Government, stole passwords to these accounts.
It is feared that VOICE’s whole system was undermined, and sensitive information may have been compromised.
Several organisations and cybersecurity experts identified the alleged perpetrator of this cyber-attack as Ocean Lotus (also known as APT32). Ocean Lotus is a notoriously sophisticated hacking group that has carried out a longstanding and sophisticated hacking campaign for many years. A large number of cyber-attacks targeting Vietnamese human rights organisations and human rights defenders in the country have been attributed to them. Ocean Lotus has reportedly used the particular spyware that was sent to VOICE to carry out cyber-attacks against activists and human rights organisations in Viet Nam in the past.
In the communication we expressed our concern that VOICE was being targeted for its human rights work in the country. The recent events come on top of travel bans, smear campaigns and other forms of harassment by the authorities. Viet Nam has featured a number of times in recent years in the UN Secretary General’s report on reprisals for cooperating with UN mechanisms and there is credible evidence to suggest that VOICE was also targeted in reprisal for its cooperation with the UN in the field of human rights.
In 2019-2020, VOICE worked closely with the UN, including on conducting a training on human rights documentation and reporting to UN human rights mechanisms. VOICE engaged actively and visibly with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights regularly submitting information and reports to different UN mechanisms (Treaty Bodies, Special Procedures, and the Universal Periodic Review).
This is a shorter version than the original communication.