The malware lockdown in Havana and Hanoi

By Danny O'Brien/CPJ Internet Advocacy Coordinator on June 8, 2010 6:07 PM ET

General purpose computers give journalists an incredible amount of power to create, research, and publish their work away from those who may wish to interfere. But such independence requires that the computer itself remain free and uncompromised by software that works against the journalist's own interests. 

A malicious program that is installed on your local machine can act as the perfect secret police officer. It can watch your key-presses, survey the Web sites you visit, forbid you from using unapproved software, and obey and report back to its own remote masters without your knowledge. Software that invisibly works against the computer's user in this way is generally called malware, and is usually the product of criminal attempts to control your computer by exploiting security flaws; it's the code that spam e-mails and compromised Web sites often try to get you to download.

In Vietnam and Cuba, however, it is not gangs of hackers, but the national governments that are attempting to control the use of computers.

Earlier this month, the Vietnamese opposition group Viet Tan reported that the People's Committee of Hanoi has required monitoring software installed on computers provided for Internet use in the city. In Cuba, Paco Mendez reported for the anticensorship organization Sesawe that hotels have been installing "Avila Link" on their public machines, a Cuban-made application that locks down Internet-connected PCs and prevents other software from being run.

Vietnamese authorities had previously been suspected of using the old-fashioned way of installing malware: by encouraging users to download misleading software online. Researchers investigating last year's Google-China break-in discovered that one of the most widely-used pieces of software for Vietnamese computer users, VPSKeys, a utility that allows Vietnamese characters to be entered on a standard keyboard, had been infected with malware. The software had been altered to allow remote groups to spy on the computer owner's key-presses, as well as hijack the host's Internet connection to participate in coordinated attacks on external Web sites. The Vietnamese authorities denied any involvement in the malware, but it's notable that the Web sites targeted were those critical of bauxite mining in Vietnam, a particularly sensitive topic for the Vietnamese government.

Hanoi's order is reminiscent of China's recent attempt to require "Green Dam Youth Escort" filtering software installed on all new PCs sold on the mainland. The Green Dam initiative on home computers was abandoned in China after a backlash from computer manufacturers (who complained that the software was buggy) and Chinese netizens (who berated the government for its clumsy attempts at control). Li Yizhong, the minister for industry and information technology, later stated that public computers, including schools and cybercafés, would still be required to install the program.

Neither Cuba nor Vietnam currently has many private computer-owning users. The vast majority of online activity takes place in the cybercafés and hotels of their cities. By controlling these machines, the authorities in these countries can remain the gatekeepers, overseers and censors of the media--for now, at least.


I am not so sure about your comment regarding Vietnam not having too many private computer-owning users. Based on the amount of hacking and comment spamming ( and spam as well ) that originates from Vietnam - one would conclude from your article that it is Viets chilling around Internet cafes, commercialized operations or government approved organizations that spew all that garbage traffic from Vietnam.

And as for Cuba... well... they have a problem with connectivity - in that the United States has done everything under the sun to interfere with Cuba getting connected to the Internet via the Global Crossing undersea cable. So Cuba has to pipe all their Internet traffic via satellites - and that makes transmissions an expensive commodity that is purposely rationed.

If Venezuela goes ahead and provides that undersea cable to Cuba... then possibly the Cubans will be able to relax a bit regarding their tight enforcement of what people are doing. I think the Cubans are presently more concerned with the nickles and dimes spent on their satellite links then spying per se on journalist.

But it all leads to another question that I have always had about China. Everyone likes to gripe about the supposed 'Great Firewall' of China and how it restricts the Chinese from surfing the world. If the Chinese government is so bloody clever... then how does anyone explain the fact that China is always in the top five for countries sending the most spam and other scammy types of Internet traffic ? Are they turning a blind eye to these capitalistic attempts by their citizens to make a buck while laughing at the problems it causes elsewhere in the world. I don't know... but if the 'Great Firewall' of China was so 'great', you would think the Chinese could block all the malware being directed at their citizens from evil doers in other countries. But they can't. And you would think they would be able to block all the web hosting server hijackings that occur at Chinese hosting companys by the armies of zombie Bots that search and find and compromise vulnerable boxes.



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