A new Israeli-made spyware resembling the notorious Pegasus program has reportedly been used to target journalists and opposition politicians in several countries, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).

The spyware and related exploit or hacking software was created by QuaDream Ltd, a little-known firm established by a former Israeli military official and veterans of NSO Group, the creator of Pegasus, according to Citizen Lab in a report on Tuesday (11 Apr).

At least five people have reportedly been targeted by QuaDream spyware and exploits in North America, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

Victims include journalists, political opposition figures, and an NGO worker.

Spyware like Pegasus has been widely used by governments and other actors to spy on opponents, media and activists.

Citizen Lab has found that once placed on a user’s phone or computer, QuaDream’s spyware can record audio from a phone call, record external sounds from a device’s microphone, take pictures from cameras, search the device’s files, and generate its own two-factor authentication codes to enable continual access to the device owner’s cloud accounts.

The spyware also includes a self-destruct feature to hide its previous presence once it is no longer used.

AFP wrote that Citizen Lab has identified servers in 10 countries that received data from victims’ devices, including Israel, Singapore, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates and Bulgaria.

It also noted that QuaDream has marketed its spyware and services to government clients including Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Ghana, Indonesia, and Morocco.

Straits Times removes mention of Singapore in AFP report

Meanwhile, the Singapore mainstream media, the Straits Times, reproduced the AFP report but removed the mention of Singapore.

ST is a publication under the SPH Media group, which will be funded by the Singapore government up to S$900 million over the course of five years.

Minister Josephine Teo stated in response to concerns about editorial independence during the announcement of the funding that the media group has exercised editorial independence since its establishment in 1984 as Singapore Press Holdings.

“Funding support does not change that, as is the case with Mediacorp since 2011,” she said.

Singapore has not denied use of QuaDream spyware

Reuters reported last year that one of QuaDream’s first clients was the Singaporean government.

On 18 February last year, Leon Perera, the Workers’ Party Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC, asked the Minister for Home Affairs whether the Singaporean government uses QuaDream’s spyware or other similar spyware technologies.

Answering on behalf of Mr K Shanmugam, Mr Desmond Tan, Minister of State, Ministry of Home Affairs, stated that government agencies responsible for safeguarding national security have to rely on intelligence capabilities, including the use of technology.

However, he also emphasized that the government cannot reveal specifics about its operational aspects or capabilities to ensure national security.

Ms Sylvia Lim, another WP MP, asked Mr Tan if she can be certain that Singaporean government agencies are not attempting to hack into her phone after receiving a threat warning from Apple about potential hacking by state-sponsored agencies.

Mr Tan advised her to file a police report.

Mr Shanmugam later confirmed that Ms Lim’s phone was not hacked by Singapore’s state agencies after checking with the Security and Intelligence Division (SID), which falls under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

It is noteworthy that despite the confirmation from Mr Shamugam that Ms Lim’s phone had not been hacked by SID and MHA, the Singaporean government has not denied the use of spyware in its replies, and the Internal Security Department (ISD), overseen by the Prime Minister’s Office, should be asked about the use of QuaDream’s spyware.

In 2014, The Online Citizen Asia (TOC) reported that a company founded by former ISD officials, owned by a cooperative that allegedly belongs to the ISD, had purchased and used FinSpy spyware.

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