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Century of Data

Fears of Chinese cybermeddling grow after Cambodia election

Alleged hacks ahead of July vote seen as trial run for manipulating democracy

After testing its cyberattack capability in Cambodia, China could apply it in Taiwan ahead of November's local elections there.

TOKYO -- China is believed to be attempting cyberattacks to sway politics in neighboring countries, apparently conducting a trial run in the Cambodian election last month to keep pro-Beijing leader Hun Sen firmly in place.

An investigation by a U.S. cybersecurity company and interviews with experts indicate that Chinese-backed hackers engaged in widespread cyberactivities targeting Hun Sen's political opponents ahead of the July 29 vote in the Southeast Asian country.

As China promotes its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative to expand its sphere of influence, it could also step up such cyberactivities to manipulate information and tip election outcomes, likely through social media. The data economy that has brought once-unthinkable convenience to modern life now threatens the foundations of democracy.

In June, Monovithya Kem, a Cambodian political activist who lives in the U.S., received email expressing sympathy for her imprisoned father.

The email claimed to come from Chheng Sophors, senior investigator at the Licadho human rights group. Kem said she did not suspect anything at first. But after taking a closer look, she realized that the email was sent from a free account, prompting her to seek help from a specialist and transferred the message to U.S. cybersecurity company FireEye.

The email came with malware that steals sensitive information if downloaded. FireEye traced the attack to a server registered on the southern Chinese resort island of Hainan.

Under Hun Sen, Cambodia is one of the few countries to side with Beijing in the South China Sea territorial disputes involving countries like Vietnam and the Philippines. And there was a reason that Kem was singled out. Her father -- Kem Sokha, the former head of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party -- has been jailed on treason charges.

The Chinese military has a cyber unit in Hainan. Some software that launched cyberattacks was in Chinese, and the use of a Chinese keyboard was also confirmed. Tim Wellsmore of FireEye said there is no doubt that China was behind the cyberattack, given the technology used, infrastructure and other factors.

The server in Hainan revealed a history of access to Cambodia's election commission, government offices and opposition politicians. Positioning Cambodia as a proving ground for honing its hacking skills, China has staged repeated attacks to get information on any opposition activities that threaten the Hun Sen administration, according to Wellsmore.

China's ultimate goal is to use the internet to influence politics in neighboring countries -- a page from the Russian playbook. The Brookings Institution detailed how Moscow's meddling works in a March report titled "The Future of Political Warfare: Russia, the West, and the Coming Age of Global Digital Competition."

Russia disseminates disinformation based on stolen confidential content and manipulates voter sentiment, often sowing division or smearing opponents.

The proliferation of social media, which enables the spread of content tailored to people's tastes and political views based on vast stores of user data, has given rise to this cybermeddling technique.

The vast amounts of fake news reportedly perpetuated by Russia flooded Facebook and Twitter in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Russia is honing its technology by testing it in Eastern Europe, Brookings points out.

China, too, is believed to be trying out its technology, pouring money and labor into the effort.

Massive cybermeddling by Beijing has yet to be confirmed. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said China is not aware of any specific cyberattacks on Cambodia and opposes any such activities.

But Wellsmore insists China has a long-term plan for advancing its cyberattack techniques. To advance the Belt and Road initiative and other projects, China could expand its targets to cover geopolitically important regions.

Taiwan's local elections this November present an opportunity for China to try the cyberattacks it tested in Cambodia.

Taiwanese government agencies have suffered tens of millions of cyberattacks a month since President Tsai Ing-wen, who distances herself from the Chinese Communist Party, won election in 2016.

Malcolm Cook, senior fellow at the Singaporean-government-affiliated ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, warns of future attacks in Southeast Asia, such as those targeting the Indonesian presidential election and the Philippine midterm elections in 2019.

In fact, such "soft war" could soon become a daily occurrence.

University of Texas professor Robert Chesney points to the growing risk of public opinion being manipulated through digital technology, eroding democratic institutions. Social media face a dilemma in which their efforts to protect free speech by using moderate content screening could end up exposing them to greater risk of information warfare, he says.

Technology has become a very powerful force in international politics that needs to be reckoned with.

The Nikkei's ongoing series Century of Data was a 2019 winner of the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association (NSK) Awards, the country's most prestigious journalism prizes.

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