Vietnam has long been viewed as a follower  of China’s footsteps in digitally monitoring and controlling its own citizens.
Given the two countries’ shared political systems, their disregard for fundamental human rights, including the right to privacy, and the lack of civil consultation and legal oversight, it can reasonably be argued that Vietnam is slowly becoming a replica of China’s digital authoritarian state.
China’s ambition to surveil, collect and analyze the personal data of its people has been recently highlighted in well-documented investigations  and reports.  In tandem with its ideological comrade, the Vietnamese government has utilized similar tactics to maximize the State’s ability to discover and gather information about its citizens' identity and social activities and further consolidate one-party rule.
Prima facie, Vietnam’s security infrastructure is still in its infancy compared to China’s sophisticated and well-constructed surveillance system. However, as Beijing in recent years has proactively sought to export  its surveillance technology, as well as its political values, to other authoritarian governments, such as Vietnam, it might take this chance to deploy the same techno-authoritarian tools to monitor and crack down on dissent in other countries.
Vietnam’s Surveillance State
The Hanoi government has long been adept at using surveillance methods, including the old-fashioned reliance on plainclothes agents, to monitor the everyday activities of local dissidents. Similar techniques have also been used to prevent activists from leaving their homes and to keep a watchful eye on the online activities of social media users in Vietnam.
In a report  assessing the situation of civic space in Vietnam in 2019, CIVICUS, a South Africa-based nonprofit organization that works to promote and strengthen civil society around the world, acknowledged that Vietnam had continued to harass, arrest, and imprison local activists for their criticisms of the government on social media. This persecution has been made possible by the constant surveillance of internet activities by public security forces.
The crackdown on online free speech may include abduction and forced disappearances in serious circumstances.
For example, in 2019, a medical worker named Huynh Thi To Nga  reportedly disappeared from her workplace and went missing for several weeks. Local authorities later announced that she was being held at Dong Nai Detention Center and consequently sentenced her to five years in prison on a charge of engaging in “anti-State” activities. Nga was known for her critical views on her Facebook account regarding the government’s human rights violations and widespread corruption. She is believed to have been abducted by plainclothes security agents.
CIVICUS further noted that Vietnam’s cyber security law, which came into effect in 2019, joined the country’s long list of restrictive and vague laws that had often been used to stifle dissent.
According to the civil society advocate, the new law gave “sweeping powers to the Vietnamese authorities” since the government could legally force technology companies to “hand over potentially vast amounts of [user] data” or “censor users’ posts” upon government demand.
A network of State-sponsored undercover policemen and security agents tasked with supervising the movement of local activists and human rights defenders has become the most effective tool in the Vietnamese government’s surveillance playbook.
In another report titled “Locked Inside Our Home: Movement Restrictions on Rights Activists in Vietnam”, released February this year, Human Rights Watch, an advocate for universal human rights, documented  how Hanoi had manoeuvred this network of secret watchdogs not only to surveil local dissidents but also to infringe on their freedom of movement by barring these individuals from leaving their homes, especially on the anniversary of sensitive political incidents.
The Switch to Digital Surveillance
The Vietnamese government, or more precisely the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), has recently deployed and integrated new surveillance technology and monitoring systems in its civil electronic infrastructure to maintain a closer eye on nearly 100 million Vietnamese citizens, their personal life and social media connections.
For example, the government’s plan to issue  a new generation of chip-based ID cards this year, which were advertised as making citizens’ transactions in public services “easier” and “more convenient,” contains security loopholes which allow the authorities access to the personal information of the cardholder and to monitor their every move.
“Convenient,” “safe,” and “secure” are the same rhetoric  that China has adopted to promote the pros of using a personal WeChat account, which also remains tightly controlled by the Chinese authorities, to access public services or to make financial transactions.
All essential information about a Vietnamese citizen’s identity will be incorporated into the new chip-based ID card and an electronic identification account. In other words, this new electronic account will become a person’s second digital identity and even their alternative bank account.  All personal information will be integrated into this electronic account, including driver’s license details, medical records, professional licenses, financial transactions, and the like.
However, with all important information about a citizen’s identity and his or her personal life stored and exclusively managed by the MPS, there are no detailed regulations or legal requirements regarding the protection of personal information provided in the ministry’s new draft decree on Electronic Identification and Authentication.
Since the above-mentioned draft doesn’t allow ID card holders to control their digital identity or refuse unauthorized access to their data, this new identity card might become just another surveillance device of the government and the public security forces to encroach on the privacy rights of Vietnamese citizens.
At the same time, the Vietnamese government is seeking to fully integrate China’s facial recognition system into its mass surveillance network.
Vietnam is the biggest customer  of Hikvision, a Chinese manufacturer of visual surveillance equipment and monitoring systems, with an estimated more than 670,000 of its camera networks installed in the country. Top10VPN, an independent reviewer of VPN services and online security, released the number. Ho Chi Minh City remains  the city outside of China with the most Hikvision surveillance cameras worldwide.
Hikvision is the world’s largest producer  of visual surveillance equipment. However, the company’s close links with the Chinese government, and its complicity in helping build China’s massive and abusive police monitoring system to target and oppress the Muslim minority in Xinjiang, have made the company a potential target of sanctions by the U.S. government. There have been concerns about whether or not Hikvision’s surveillance technology is being abused  by authoritarian governments to crack down on dissent in their countries.
Ho Chi Minh City’s public surveillance system was initially introduced in 2016 when the District 5 Police Division announced that it had unveiled  the city’s first networks of artificial intelligence (AI) cameras and monitoring centers to “prevent crimes” and “maintain social order.”
According to police sources,  a network of 240 district-level surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition and crowd detection technology was in its trial phase, and the model could be applied in Ho Chi Minh City’s other districts. The local authorities didn’t state from which country these cameras were imported.
In the future, Vietnam will also set up a network of Intelligent Operations Centers (IOCs) with a system of AI cameras and monitoring services on social media. These centers are expected to be located in all 63 Vietnamese cities and provinces to help the government gather visual data and information about its citizens. The Vietnamese government hasn’t published information regarding the origins of this surveillance equipment.
Along with the surveillance camera system, Vietnam’s most popular messaging app, Zalo, has recently been highlighted as an effective tool  for the police to help “prevent and fight against crime” in many Vietnamese cities and localities.
Zalo is a homegrown social media platform developed in 2012 by VNG Corp.,  a Vietnamese tech start-up specializing in digital content and online entertainment. Despite being a private business, VNG has a close partnership with the Vietnamese government and is legally bound by the Cyber Security Law to provide user data  upon government request. It was estimated  that there were around 62 million Zalo users in Vietnam as of 2020.
Vietnamese citizens can also use Zalo to report crimes or connect to services provided by the Ministry of Public Security. Cong An Nhan Dan Newspaper (People’s Police), the mouthpiece of Vietnam’s Ministry of Security, claimed  that Zalo had shown its “usefulness” in deepening connections between the police and the citizens.
Meanwhile, “Zalo Connect”  is a new feature developed and introduced by Zalo that allows the networking platform to pinpoint a user’s specific location and connect this person to a nearby contact or public services. This function substantially gained popularity during the radical lockdowns to curb COVID-19 transmissions last year, as it became a much-needed emergency tool to help the urban poor in Vietnam connect with the donors of food, necessities and medical equipment.
To prove the authenticity of their emergency and limit scams, many help seekers are forced to provide the details of their miseries and intimate information on the Zalo platform in exchange for aid. Anyone can get access to this sensitive information.
Zalo’s locate-and-connect function, notwithstanding being a crucial technological tool to help alleviate the suffering of many Vietnamese people during the COVID-19 pandemic, has thus raised  privacy concerns and ethical questions about the government practice of collecting, extracting and publicizing data from these vulnerable populations as a precondition for matching supply and demand.
Until now, the messaging app hasn’t announced any concrete plans to remove these kinds of sensitive information from its platform once lockdown measures are lifted.
Besides traditional methods of physical surveillance and intimidation of dissidents, chip-based identity cards, advanced surveillance cameras, and telecommunications apps have recently become another apparatus in the Vietnamese government’s playbook to further monitor, control and manipulate its populace in the name of public safety and social security.
This trend signifies the rise of digital authoritarianism in Vietnam amid the ruling Communist Party’s increasing intolerance of critics and opposition voices. Without transparent policies, public consultation, and independent supervision, technological advancements may be exploited for oppressive purposes once they’re in the hands of authoritarian governments.
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