Google: Malware targets Vietnamese activists

The search giant warns of cyberattacks on those opposed to a China-backed mining plan

Google says that politically motivated malware has been used to spy on Vietnamese computer users and attack activist blogs over the past several months.

"In January, we discussed a set of highly sophisticated cyber attacks that originated in China and targeted many corporations around the world," wrote Google engineer Neel Mehta in a company blog Tuesday. "We have gathered information about a separate cyber threat that was less sophisticated but that nonetheless was employed against another community."

Last week, Google shut down its Chinese search operations, a move spurred in part by the late-2009 cyberattacks.

Although the command and control servers associated with this Vietnamese botnet used some of the same domains as the Google attacks, security vendor McAfee believes that the Vietnamese botnet is not related. Some files originally thought to be associated with the Google attack were actually associated with this Vietnamese malware, the company said.

The Vietnamese malware apparently began spreading in late 2009, when someone hacked into the Web site run by the Vietnamese Professionals Society and replaced a keyboard driver that's offered for download on the site with a malicious Trojan horse program.

"We believe that the perpetrators may have political motivations and may have some allegiance to the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam," wrote McAfee CTO George Kurtz in a Tuesday blog post. His company has also investigated the so-called Aurora attacks that hit Google and other companies.

The DDoS attacks linked to the Vietnamese botnet "tried to squelch opposition to bauxite mining efforts in Vietnam, an important and emotionally charged issue in the country," Mehta wrote.

The Vietnamese government is working with Chinese mining interests to establish bauxite mines in Vietnam's lush central highlands region. Critics warn that this could become an environmental disaster, spawned by bauxite mining's toxic runoff. Bauxite is used to produce aluminum.

Google rarely blogs about this type of malware, but in an e-mail message, a company spokesman said that the company decided to go public with its findings "because we feel that the use of malware to spy on computer owners and to participate in distributed denial of service attacks against blogs containing messages of political dissent is especially egregious."

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Robert McMillan

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