A telecom firm in the Philippines recently hired the services of a United States-based cybersecurity firm to shore up its defenses against the potential threats of spying by China.
It became the latest in a string of Southeast Asian corporations to have engaged a cybersecurity firm to strengthen its online defense systems.
There are reports that Beijing-led cyber espionage operations are targeting government officials and other state infrastructures across Southeast Asia. Those reports claim China is employing various methods to increase its intelligence operations in the region, including engaging human spies, using bots, hacking and buying information.
The growth of China’s spying infrastructure in Southeast Asia presents a credible threat to the region’s security. It is therefore high time that ASEAN comes up with a plan to plug this loophole. Otherwise, it risks Beijing being able to listen in on government conversations.
A window into China’s cyber espionage operations in Southeast Asia?
In July, a Singapore national pled guilty to spying for Chinese intelligence agencies and faces at least 10 years in prison. Jun Wei Yeo, a former PhD candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, admitted to establishing a fake consultancy firm on LinkedIn to cultivate ties with the US and Southeast Asian military and government officials.
Reportedly, hackers from China have been spying on governments and businesses in Southeast Asia for more than a decade. According to a report from internet security company FireEye, China’s cyber espionage operations date back to 2005 or earlier and “focused on targets—government and commercial—who hold key political, economic and military information about the region.”
“Such a sustained, planned development effort coupled with the [hacking] group’s regional targets and mission, lead us to believe that this activity is state-sponsored – most likely the Chinese government,” warned the report’s authors.
In 2011, McAfee researchers reported that a campaign with links to China named Shady Rat attacked Asian governments, including the ASEAN Secretariat. According to another report, China has been running at least six different cyber espionage campaigns in the Southeast Asian region since 2013. Indonesia, Myanmar, Taiwan and Vietnam are reportedly the main targets of these operations.
Chinese hackers have also been targeting universities in both the US and Southeast Asia in an attempt to gain access to maritime military secrets. Beijing may be spying on Southeast Asian governments to steal documents and planning related to activity in the South China Sea. In any case, this doesn’t bode well for the region’s security.