(Ho Chi Minh City) At the height of his criminal career, Vietnamese hacker Ngo Minh Hieu stole the online data of tens of millions of Americans. He now works for his country’s government, one of the world’s most draconian on the Internet.
Posted at 8:22 AM
Behind a youthful look and a destructive smile, hid one of the biggest cybercriminals who has been angry in the United States for a long time.
From Vietnam, Ngo Minh Hieu hacked from 2007 to 2013 the personal data (names, social security numbers, bank details) of 200 million American citizens to resell them in four corners of the globe .
At the age of 20, the computer prodigy pockets tens of thousands of dollars a month, buys sports cars, offers his family a villa, a luxurious vacation.
“The more money I make, the more I like it,” he told AFP. “But I lived in fear, I knew the police were chasing me”.
In 2013, the FBI and the American secret services, for months, set a trap for him.
They lure him to Guam, a small island under the United States flag lost in the Pacific Ocean, where he believes he will encounter another cyber pirate there.
He was picked up when he got off the plane, he was imprisoned for two months before being transferred to the continent.
45 years in prison
Hieu is “the cybercriminal who has caused the most financial damage to American citizens”, told KrebsOnSecurity, an expert blog, the secret service agent Matt O’Neill who participated in his hunt. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
“I fell to the bottom […] On some occasions, I thought of hanging myself, ”he confessed.
In prison, he helps the federal government prosecute cybercriminals, which contributes, according to him, to about twenty arrests.
In 2015, his sentence was reduced to 13 years. Four years later, a second trial was arranged, he was released for good behavior and returned to Vietnam in 2020 where he was quickly recruited by the national cybercrime agency.
His mission, he says: to track cybercriminals that have thrived – as he previously did – on the web.
“I’m just here to block cyberattacks.”
He declined to discuss Vietnam’s sad record in controlling the Internet.
The communist regime passed a law in 2018 that gives the authorities immense power in terms of web surveillance. Since then, several activists and bloggers have been jailed.
The government is also actively manipulating public opinion online.
According to a report published by Oxford University in 2019, “approximately 10,000 people” are working to spread propaganda, defile dissidents ’accounts and delete unwanted content.
Vietnam is also no stranger to cyber espionage. In 2020, very rarely, Facebook publicly denounced a group of hackers who allegedly spied on opponents, non-governmental organizations and foreign governments on behalf of the authorities.
“I don’t do anything related to politics,” Hieu, 32, insisted.
He prefers to discuss his role in cybercrime education in a country long plagued by the flight of IT elites and the lack of investment to protect customer data.
Hieu has always been fascinated by computers, reveling as a child “separate (his) sister to find out what’s inside”.
As a teenager, he began hacking into bank accounts, quickly pocketing 600 dollars a day, a fortune that allowed him to study cybercrime in New Zealand.
My life is a movie. I knew the glory, I fell to the bottom. Now I’m just trying to get back on track.
Ngo Minh Hieu
His demons do not leave him. He sells personal data and other sensitive information of his classmates. When questioned by police, he fled the country.
A film studio contacted him to make a film of his story.