A notorious Vietnamese hacker becomes a government cyber agent
HO CHI MINH CITY: At the height of his career, Vietnamese hacker Ngo Minh Hieu made his fortune stealing the personal data of hundreds of millions of Americans.
Now he’s been recruited by his own authoritarian government to hunt down, he says, the kind of cybercriminal he once was.
After serving seven years in US prisons for stealing the personal data of around 200 million Americans, Hieu was returned to Vietnam, which imposes some of the world’s toughest restrictions on online freedom.
Hieu says he has since turned his back on his criminal past.
“I fell to the bottom, now I’m trying to come back up,” the 32-year-old told AFP.
“Although I don’t earn much now, I have peace instead.”
Its transformation, however, is complicated.
Hieu says his new job is to educate Vietnamese citizens about the dangers of the same type of hack he perpetrated.
But he also works on cybersecurity for the one-party state government that ruthlessly suppresses dissent, harasses and arrests people for posting critical opinions online.
“MORE MORE MORE”
Nicknamed HieuPC at the age of 12, Hieu was fascinated by computers the moment he got his hands on them.
But he was soon fined US$1,000 for stealing other people’s internet connections for his personal use.
He started hacking into foreign bank accounts, earning up to US$600 a day in high school, then using that money to study cybersecurity in New Zealand.
Hieu was forced to return home in 2010 after hacking into his university and selling students’ personal information, and his illegal activities grew.
In his twenties, he was making $100,000 a month hacking and selling around 200 million US Social Security numbers.
“I was on the peak of success. I was too proud of myself. I wanted more villas, more apartments, more fancy cars,” Hieu said.
Then, in February 2013, he was lured to the United States in an undercover operation and promptly arrested upon landing.
“FALLEN TO THE BOTTOM”
“I don’t know of any other cybercriminal who has caused more material financial harm to more Americans than Ngo,” Secret Service agent Matt O’Neill told KrebsOnSecurity.com, a cybersecurity blog. carried out the plan to catch Hieu. .
Hieu initially received a 45-year sentence, later reduced to 13 years.
“I had sunk to the bottom, losing everything in my life,” Hieu said. “I thought about hanging myself.”
But he struggled and was released in 2019, returning to Vietnam in 2020.
The former millionaire now lives in an average apartment in the commercial capital Ho Chi Minh City and works at the state-owned National Cyber Security Center.
“We are focused on hunting down criminals and fighting cyberattacks,” he said, declining to comment on Vietnam’s increasingly repressive approach to online censorship.
A new cybersecurity law came into force in 2019 which, according to Amnesty International, gives the government “broad powers to limit online freedom” and targets those who post opinions it does not like.
The UN Human Rights Council in 2019 criticized the law for imposing “severe restrictions on freedom of expression and opinion”.
Activists and bloggers have been arrested, some even jailed for spreading anti-state propaganda, and Amnesty warned last year that government-linked hackers were targeting rights activists.
Hieu insists his work as a “threat hunter” is not political but focused on criminal hackers, tracking down those who try to steal data from Vietnamese people.
“PIRACY IS LIKE A KNIFE”
Around 70% of Vietnam’s 98 million people use the internet and cyber threats are commonplace.
A report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies cited Microsoft data from 2020 showing that Vietnam had the highest rate of ransomware attacks in the Asia-Pacific region.
Hieu travels the country speaking to schools and universities about the importance of cybersecurity, as well as the consequences of data theft.
As the government pushes for public awareness, Hieu said many Vietnamese have little understanding of cybercrime.
“Now I continue to hack, but I hack scam web pages or try to understand the data that blackhat hackers exchange online to track them down and find out who they are,” he said.
“Hacking is like a knife, which you can give to someone who wants to use it on something – good or bad.”