Two members of Anonymous Cambodia, the local arm of the international “hacktivist” collective, were arrested earlier this month following an eight-month-long investigation in conjunction with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Police announced yesterday.
The two suspects – both 21-year-old students at Phnom Penh’s SETEC Institute, a private university – have been charged under three articles of the criminal code related to computer hacking, and could face between one month and two years in prison and a fine of up to 4 million riel ($1,000).
They were arrested on April 7, and are being held in pretrial detention at Prey Sar prison.
“The authorities of the internal security department have investigated with the [cooperation of the representative in Cambodia] of the United States’ FBI for eight months to target the suspects [before] requesting an arrest warrant from the court to arrest the two students,” said Major General Chhay Sinarith, director of the Ministry of Interior’s internal security department.
“These are the first members of the Anonymous hacker group who have been arrested by the [Cambodian] police, and we found no [evidence] of any [planned] terrorist attack.”
The investigation began after complaints were filed by various government departments, including the National Election Committee, the Anti-Corruption Unit, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Phnom Penh City Hall, following attacks by Anonymous Cambodia on their websites in the latter half of last year.
As mass opposition-led protests against the government began after disputed parliamentary elections in July and the authorities’ response to demonstrations became more heavy-handed, leading to fatalities, Anonymous Cambodia launched what it called “Operation Cambodia Freedom”.
According to a statement posted on the website of the General Commissariat of the National Police yesterday, more than 30 government institutions and private companies have been attacked since the election.
The two suspects were named by police as Bun King Mongkolpanha, known online as “Black Cyber” or “Machine”, and Chu Songheng, known online as “Zoro”.
Ahead of the election last year, Black Cyber claimed responsibility in an interview with the Post for an attack that took the National Election Committee website offline for about 12 hours, which he said was in protest of alleged government efforts to register illegal Vietnamese voters.
Two gigabytes of data related to the voter list was also stolen and the information was later released by the group.
In that interview, Black Cyber said that he joined Anonymous in 2010 and was a hacker for primarily political reasons, but also to “enjoy the technology”.
“Myself, I don’t think I’m a criminal . . . I’m certain I’m not a criminal,” he said at the time, adding somewhat presciently that he feared foreign involvement in a government investigation.
“The Cambodian government by itself won’t catch us,” he told the Post. “But they might if they collaborate with other agencies like from around the world, like the FBI, CIA or NSA.”
US Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh said that the embassy would not comment on “ongoing investigations”.
In response to whether FBI agents had been deployed from the US, he added that permanent FBI legal attaches at US embassies “work with the law enforcement and security agencies in a host country to coordinate investigations of interest to both countries”.
Police said yesterday that they are continuing to investigate other suspected hackers working with Anonymous Cambodia and that the pair had already confessed to being part of the group.
“The confession of the two suspects recognised their illegal activity [as members of Anonymous Cambodia] but they claimed they had just wanted to learn hacker skills,” Sinarith said.
The police statement, however, said that only Songheng, or Zoro, and not Mongkolpanha, or Black Cyber, had claimed he had not participated in any attacks.
Anonymous Cambodia did not respond to requests for comment yesterday and the group hasn’t posted any statements about the attack.
Since a draft law on cybercrime was leaked on April 9, however, the group’s twitter page has repeatedly posted that “#OpCambodia is a go. Cambodia’s government is trying to censor their internet.”
The draft law contained broad provisions for what could constitute a cybercrime, leading rights groups to fear that it could be used to silence government critics online.
The Anonymous Cambodia arrests mark the first time local hackers targeting the government have been taken into custody, said Ou Phannarith, director of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications’ ICT security department.
“This shows us that our authority [has] enough capacity to crack down on cybercrime in the Kingdom. This [does] not only refer to local hackers who hacked local websites but also other hackers who [have] committed cybercrime offence into Cambodian soil or using Cambodia as [a] base to attack others,” he said.
At the SETEC Institute, which offers degrees in information technology and information systems, news of the arrests were a hot topic yesterday, students said.
“Members from Anonymous are not only from our school but also from other schools,” one IT student, who declined to be named, said, adding that he had never met the suspects.
A university official who also declined to be named said that while Songheng had been taken away by a group of plainclothes police who arrived at the institute on April 7, he was not aware if Mongkolpanha was also arrested at the university.
He also took the opportunity to distance the institute from the alleged illegal activities.
“We don’t teach them to do things like this, we don’t allow the students to do bad things,” he said.