Last month, the daughter of a jailed Cambodian opposition party leader received an email from a well-seeming activist at a reputed Cambodian non-profit. For weeks, the sender nudged Monovithya Kem to open an attachment described as containing interview questions.
Kem suspected a trap set by Cambodian hackers seeking access to her computer. But a monthslong investigation by California security-research firm FireEye revealed that Kem was among several Cambodians likely targeted by a far more formidable actor: China.
FireEye said Wednesday it found evidence that a Chinese hacking team it believes is linked to Beijing has penetrated computer systems belonging to Cambodia’s election commission, opposition leaders and media in the months leading up to Cambodia’s July 29 election. Investigators could not immediately tell what, if any, data had been stolen or altered.
The Foreign Ministry in China has rejected these allegations.
Although FireEye did not find evidence that the Chinese hackers are working to sway the Cambodian elections in the ruling party’s favor, the revelations may cast a murky geopolitical shadow over the elections critics already say will be neither free nor fair.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest-serving rulers and a staunch ally of Beijing, faced what analysts predicted would have been a tight race before he jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha last year, accusing him of treason.
After the European Union and the United States withdrew their support for the election, China stepped in to donate $20 million to Cambodia’s National Election Committee, said Hang Puthea, a spokesman for the body. China also last year pledged $100 million in military aid.
Monovithya Kem, the daughter of Kem Sokha and an official in his now-disbanded Cambodia National Rescue Party, said she has frequently been targeted by Cambodian hackers in the past, but the revelation of potential Chinese involvement shocked her.
“To know that a foreign group is specifically trying to get information from me —…