Activists in Macau say that they are being targeted by hackers ahead of a high-level visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to the territory next week.

Activist Jason Chao Teng-hei of the pro-democracy party New Macau Association told HKFP that someone had tried to crack the passwords of his personal and work email accounts on Wednesday. He added that his four colleagues also had the same issue on that day.

Someone with American IP addresses tried to hack into Jason Chao’s email account on Wednesday. Photo: Jason Chao, via Facebook.

Chao’s Telegram – a messaging app – was also targeted on Tuesday. The activist said he found out about the hacking attempts after receiving a text message detailing a login verification from the messaging app, a security measure to prevent password cracking. Chao added that he had seen many similar attempts to hack into his Telegram account before.

In early September, the website of satirical newspaper Macau Concealers fell under a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack – an attempt to disrupt a server by overwhelming it with traffic. Chao, the director of the newspaper, said they detected the attack through CloudFlare, a leading cybersecurity company that Macau Concealers work with.

Telegram’s code verification messages to Jason Chao. Chao said that there had been more similar attempts but he had deleted them. Photo: Jason Chao.

Chao suspected the attacks were connected to next week’s visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to the former Portuguese colony. He said that another pro-democracy media outlet, All About Macau, also experienced DDoS attacks close to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Macau in 2014.

“Maybe [those behind the cyber attacks] meant to give us a warning, or maybe they want to find out about the details of any actions we may be planning,” said Chao. “But at the moment, we don’t have anything planned for Li’s visit.”

Icarus Wong Ho-yin of the human rights watchdog Civil Rights Observer told HKFP that cyber attacks are a common tactic deployed by the Chinese government.

“Every time a key event neared, such as elections and Chinese officials visiting Hong Kong or Macau, we saw a surge in cyber attack around those sensitive times,” said Wong.

He added that cyber attacks likely take place all year around, but they are more frequent during sensitive times as the government would want to obtain the latest relevant information.

Icarus Wong. File

Common types of attacks include phishing and password cracking. Wong said phishing is a common problem for pro-democracy politicians and activists, with hackers pretending to be a friend or a reporter and sending emails attached with malware such as Trojan viruses. Some malware can compromise a user’s entire computer.

Password cracking is a low cost method of hacking and may be effective against accounts with weak passwords, Wong said. “An email hacker may be looking for information such as details of a protest and anything about the user’s personal life.”

In July last year, hackers from mainland China gained unauthorised access to a Google Drive account belonging to student activist group Scholarism, stealing the personal data of around 1,000 members. A month before that, Benny Tai Yiu-ting, HKU law professor and a key figure behind the 2014 Occupy protests, was under internal investigation after leaked email revealed that Tai had transferred money from anonymous donors to HKU accounts.

On Wednesday, at least three Hongkongers – two former activists and a filmmaker – were denied entry to Macau for posing threats to the stability of the SAR’s internal security. Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong suspect the entry is linked to Li’s visit to Macau on October 10-12.

Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.