Large-scale international hacks are occurring more often than ever before, yet internet security remains lax in Vietnam. Michael Tatarski looks into the problems of securing data and what you can do to protect your information. Photo by Vinh Dao.

In McAfee Labs’ November 2014 Threats Report, Senior Vice President Vincent Weafer claimed that 2014 would be remembered as ‘the Year of Shaken Trust’. This comes as no surprise after a string of unprecedented hacks left almost everyone who uses a digital device vulnerable. The two most prominent attacks were the massive release of confidential information from servers at Sony Pictures and the leak of hundreds of nude photos of celebrities from their personal iCloud accounts.

However, countless smaller-scale attacks also took place, and Vietnam was repeatedly targeted. According to Tuoi Tre News, on October 13 VCCorp, which powers the websites of many local news organisations, was attacked by hackers who remain unknown. The breach shut down numerous websites for days and cost the company around USD $50,000 per day. After a controversial football match between Vietnam and Malaysia in early December, the websites of the football governing bodies of both countries were hacked and defaced.

With headlines full of reports on hacks and data breaches, one would think that internet security would be a major concern in Vietnam. However, according to Thai Duong, an information security engineer at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters, that is not the case. Born and raised here, he saw first-hand that businesses focus more on management than the technical side of security.

“They try to push you into management because they don’t have enough people,” he says. Cultural emphasis on the importance of moving up the ladder also contributes to the lack of attention paid to security engineering. As Duong says, “If you are still an engineer five years after graduating from school, some people might consider that a failure.”

He has also found that even when businesses care about security, they don’t know how to effectively spend money on such safety measures. Most simply buy a lot of devices and programs, however these always have vulnerabilities. “You have to train the best people and invest in the universities but [corporations] don’t do that,” Duong says.

Duong is working to change this. His biggest attempt so far is TetCon, an annual security conference that is the only one of its kind in Vietnam.

“I want to build a community here with two goals: to bring some of the experience that Western security experts have to business owners who have money and want to do it the right way,“ says Duong, “And the second, bigger goal is to…be a bridge between the good engineers here and Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.”

Glenn Pritchard, a Certified Information Systems Security professional with Cisco Systems, has been working on security in Vietnam for about three years. He agrees that businesses and individuals need to step up their security precautions when it comes to data. The country is known internationally for being weak on protection, leaving it open to numerous threats.

For example, Pritchard says, “The Chinese are notorious for using Vietnam to bounce their attacks to other locations to hide the origin because it is generally perceived as being behind the times with computer security in general.” His two biggest concerns involve technology that many expats can’t live without: smartphones and pirated software.

Mobile programming grows exponentially every year and malicious software that can attack these programs is spreading just as quickly. For example, if your phone is hacked, your keystrokes can be logged or your phone may make cold calls in the middle of the night that rack up an enormous bill.

The most secure computer is shut off and locked in a safe, but that’s just not practical.

However Pritchard does have tips to avoid such attacks. “Do not jailbreak your iPhone,” he says. “This bypasses a lot of Apple’s built-in security. You can run a lot of cool apps but you can also accidentally download a lot of bad stuff.” For those with a different mobile operating system, “only download things that are from the official Google Play store,” he suggests.

Pritchard is particularly worried about expat kids, many of whom have the latest mobile devices. “They have the smartphones, but they haven’t really been briefed on the risks,” he says.

There are plenty of threats associated with using laptop and desktop computers as well. According to Pritchard, it is estimated that 40 percent of all desktops in Vietnam are infected with some sort of malicious software, largely thanks to the fact that so many pirated programs are in use. One way to reduce the chance of getting hit with malware is to avoid using unlicensed software. Pritchard also advises against downloading movies and TV shows through torrents, something of which your correspondent is guilty.

To be sure, the threat of malicious software isn’t going away and it’s something everyone should be worried about. However, as Duong says, “You can’t ask people to care about security…until they lose something.”

It remains to be seen whether internet security in Vietnam will improve in the near future but there are steps to take to protect yourself, even while actively using your devices.

“The most secure computer is shut off and locked in a safe,” Pritchard shares, “but that’s just not practical.”