Sylvia Lim’s Apple phone hack warning and the political games she plays

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Singapore state agencies did not hack Sylvia Lim’s iPhone, Law and Affairs Minister K Shanmugam told Parliament on Friday, 18 Feb.

The Minister’s response came after an exchange between Ms Lim and Minister of State for Affairs Desmond Tan on the government’s use of spyware.

Ms Lim said she had received a threat warning from Apple suggesting her iPhone could have been subjected to hacking.

“Not long ago, I received a threat warning from Apple informing me that it could be that my iPhone has been the subject of hacking by state-sponsored attackers, and they also said it is likely to be so because of who I am individually or what I do,” she said.

“So based on what the Minister of State said just now that reliance on technology is required for national security reasons, can I get his confirmation that I should have absolutely no concerns that the Singapore government agencies are trying to hack into my phone?” she asked.

MOS Desmond Tan advised her to make a report.

When resumed after a short break, Mr Shanmugam rose to reply that Ms Lim’s phone had not been hacked by Singapore state agencies.

Mr Shanmugam also said that the proper way to do it was to approach MHA, which would then do a thorough investigation if Ms Lim was serious about finding out if her phone had been hacked and by whom.

“If you raise it in Parliament, then we must assume the intention is to publicise the fact rather than actually get to the bottom of it, and it’s obvious then why it’s made public,”

Minister K Shanmugam added.

Mr Shanmugam asked to see the precise notification from Apple. He wanted to know if it was a general notification that Apple sent to a number of people, or a specific notification sent only to Ms Lim’s phone.

If it was sent only to Ms Lim’s phone, then the MHA would be extremely concerned since the warning was about a hack that involved a state-sponsored agency, Mr Shanmugam said.

This is because Ms Lim is an MP, and all MPs are high-value targets for foreign agencies.

“It is the duty of our security agencies to be very aware of whether MPs or ministers or senior civil servants or those around them or their families are being approached or suborned, and it is in the interest of Singapore and the security of Singapore that state agencies are on top of the game,” Mr Shanmugam added.

to Ms Lim: file a police report or hand over phone for forensic examination

In a follow-up development, the Singapore sent a letter to Ms Lim advising her to make a police report. Alternatively, if she did not want to make a police report, she could hand over her phone to police for a forensic examination, a police spokesman said.

Mr Shanmugam had directed the to follow up with Ms Lim. He had also instructed them to engage a commercial organisation with the expertise to carry out the forensic examination. In addition, he had asked the police to put in place a secure, auditable and transparent process to handle and examine her phone, from the point in time that Ms Lim hands over the phone to the time it is returned to her.

Is playing political games in Parliament?

Mr Shanmugam said that the government’s approach to such sensitive matters is to neither confirm nor deny. But in the context of the question asked by Ms Lim, the minister decided to reply to her.

As a lawyer and a veteran politician, Ms Lim must surely know that the government’s approach to such sensitive matters is to neither confirm nor deny it. Was she hoping to exploit this approach to create a controversy by asking the question in Parliament? Was she hoping that a non-answer from the government (neither confirm nor deny) would create ideas in some people’s minds that the government was trying to hack her phone, especially when the COP Recommendations had just been debated in Parliament? Was she trying to create a controversy to distract from the COP report on the Raeesah saga that had morphed into a crisis of integrity for Mr Pritam Singh, Ms Lim herself, and Mr Faisal Manap?

It is interesting to note that while the has the capability to do a forensic examination of Ms Lim, Mr Shanmugam has directed them to engage a commercial organisation to do it instead.  He has also given clear instruction for a ‘secure, auditable and transparent process to handle and examine her phone, from the point in time that Ms Lim hands over the phone to the time it is returned to her’. It does appear that the minister wants to foolproof the outcome of a forensic examination from future political games that Ms Lim may want to play.

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