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Hackers cut deal to work for gov’t

SETEC Institute students Chou Songheng (centre) and Bun King Mongkolpanha (right) leave Phnom Penh Municipal Court
SETEC Institute students Chou Songheng (centre) and Bun King Mongkolpanha (right) leave Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday after being convicted of attacking various websites. Pha Lina

Hackers cut deal to work for gov’t

Two members of “hacktivist” group Anonymous Cambodia convicted of computer hacking yesterday will be spared further jail time. Instead, they have been ordered to put their “excellent” IT skills to use combating cybercrime in the Ministry of Interior.

Bun King Mongkolpanha, 21, alias “Black Cyber”, and Chou Songheng, 20, alias “Zoro”, were found guilty of IT offences under two articles of the criminal code at Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday morning and sentenced to two years in prison.

But their sentences were reduced to five months and 20 days – the amount of time they have already spent in prison since being arrested in April – and they are to be released today.

The two former SETEC Institute students are to soon begin paid work fighting cybercrime with the same Interior Ministry department that worked with the FBI to arrest them after an eight-month investigation.

Anonymous Cambodia – the local arm of the international collective – had hacked 30 government websites following last year’s disputed national election as part of what it called “Operation Cambodia Freedom”.

“Because they were IT students and have excellent knowledge in IT, the court has decided to allow them to begin work as IT police officers with the Internal Security Department of the Ministry of Interior in order to help police work in combating information technology crimes,” judge Ros Piseth said.

“But they will be put under the supervision of the municipal court’s prosecutor for a period of two years.”

The decision to give the pair government positions was made after a request from internal security department chief Dy Vichea, a son-in-law of Prime Minister Hun Sen and son of former police chief Hok Lundy, Piseth said.

Vichea could not be reached yesterday, but Chhay Sinarith, who oversees internal security as deputy general director of the National Police, said that the authorities wanted to take advantage of the youngsters’ skills.

“These two youths have committed cybercrimes, which are sophisticated technology crimes that many people in Cambodia do not know how to do, but they have the abilities and skills to do it. We are really very proud of their abilities and skills,” he said.

Sinarith added that police wanted the pair to “change their attitude” and use their knowledge for good.

“When they work with us, we will train and educate them and turn their direction to use their abilities and skills in the interest of our society and country.”

He said the case was the first time police had taken in convicted youth for training.

But Niklas Femerstrand, a Phnom Penh-based cybersecurity and networking consultant, said the methods of cyberattacks Anonymous Cambodia had used suggested they possessed limited skills and would be of little use to the police.

“The [distributed denial of service attack] that they performed was not impressive in any way and does not demonstrate ‘excellent skills’, as the police put it,” he said, adding that when the group had copied data from systems they had only used “automated tools”.

“Equally, Anonymous Cambodia did not understand the basic principles of internet anonymity. They were committing crimes directly from their own networks registered to them in their own names, and they were communicating with journalists using American services with no protection. Judging by their demonstrated recklessness, they did not understand what they were doing and how they would be discovered.”

Femerstrand – who works in a consulting capacity with the Post – questioned whether it was a wise move to allow convicted cybercriminals who had targeted the government into the police force.

“Anonymous Cambodia copied and put online as much sensitive data [as] they could acquire. Are we now going to trust them to keep sensitive information confidential, after completely disregarding the confidentiality of the data which they acquired criminally?”

At the court yesterday, the pair were all smiles after the ruling but declined to comment at length.

“I am very pleased that the court has given me a chance to rehabilitate and work with police,” Mongkolpanha said.

Their lawyer, Dim Chaoseng, said he was mostly happy with the verdict, although he had wanted the charges dropped.

He said he did not yet know how long they were required to work for the police.

During their hearing on September 7, the pair had both confessed to the hacking.

Three other alleged Anonymous Cambodia members were also arrested and charged earlier this year. Since the arrest of a high school student who used the online nickname “Attacker Fiber” in June, the previously defiant group has gone quiet on social media.

Duch Piseth, head of trial monitoring at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, described the court’s decision as strange and unprecedented.

“It’s a very strange decision for me, and it’s the discretion of judges to make such a decision. But I don’t think the convicted person will appeal against this decision – they are free and they have a good position in the government.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEVIN PONNIAH

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