At the height of his career, Vietnamese hacker Ngo Minh Hieu made a fortune stealing the personal data of hundreds of millions of Americans.
Now he has been recruited by his own government to hunt the kind of cybercriminal he once used to be.
After serving seven years in US prisons for stealing the personal details of about 200 million Americans, Ngo was sent back to Vietnam, which imposes some of the world’s strictest curbs on online freedom.
Ngo said that he has since turned his back on his criminal past.
“I fell to the bottom, now I am trying to climb up again,” the 32-year-old said. “Though I don’t earn much now, I have peace instead.”
However, his transformation is complicated.
Ngo said that his new job involves educating Vietnamese about the dangers of the same sort of hacking he perpetrated, but he is also working on cybersecurity for the government of a one-party state that cracks down ruthlessly on dissent, harassing and arresting people for posting critical opinions online.
Nicknamed HieuPC when he was 12, Ngo was fascinated by computers as soon as he first laid his hands on one, but he was soon racking up US$1,000 fines for stealing Internet connections for his own personal use.
He began hacking into foreign bank accounts, netting up to US$600 a day in high school and using the money to study cybersecurity in New Zealand.
Ngo was forced to return home in 2010 after hacking his university and selling students’ personal information, and his illegal activities spiraled.
In his 20s, he made US$100,000 a month hacking and selling about 200 million US social security numbers.
“I was on the top of success. I was over-proud of myself. I wanted more villas, more apartments, more luxurious cars,” Ngo said.
Then, in February 2013, he was lured to the US in a sting operation and promptly arrested on landing.
“I don’t know of any other cybercriminal who has caused more material financial harm to more Americans than Ngo,” US Secret Service agent Matt O’Neill, who executed the plan to catch Ngo, told KrebsOnSecurity.com, a blog dedicated to cybersecurity.
Ngo was initially given a sentence of 45 years, later reduced to 13.
“I had fallen to the bottom, losing everything in my life,” Ngo said. “I thought of hanging myself.”
However, he struggled through and was released in 2019, returning to Vietnam in 2020.
The former millionaire now lives in an average apartment in Ho Chi Minh City and works at the state-owned National Cyber Security Center.
“We’re focused on hunting criminals and thwarting cyberattacks,” he said, declining to comment on Vietnam’s increasingly repressive approach to online censorship.
A new cybersecurity law came into effect in 2019 that Amnesty International has said grants the government “sweeping powers to limit online freedom” and target those who post opinions it dislikes.
The UN Human Rights Council in 2019 criticized the law for imposing “severe restrictions on freedom of expression and opinion.”
Rights advocates and bloggers have been arrested, with some even jailed on charges of spreading propaganda against the state, and Amnesty last year said that government-linked hackers were targeting rights advocates.
Ngo said that his work as a “threat hunter” is not political, but focused on criminal hackers, tracking those who are trying to steal the data of Vietnamese.
Ngo travels the nation speaking at schools and universities about the importance of cybersecurity, as well as the consequences of data being stolen.
While the government is pushing public awareness, Ngo said many Vietnamese had little understanding of cybercrime.
“Now I still hack, but I hack fraudulent Web pages or try to understand data that blackhat hackers are trading online to trace them and find out who they are,” he said. “Hacking is like a knife, which you may give to someone who wants to use it on something — bad or good.”
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