SINGAPORE, Jan 15 (Reuters) – Israeli company Cognyte Software Ltd (CGNT.O) won a tender to sell interception spyware to a Myanmar state-backed telecommunications company a month before the February 2021 military coup, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.
The deal was struck despite Israel claiming to have halted defense technology transfers to Myanmar following a 2017 ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court, according to a legal complaint recently filed with the attorney general. of Israel and disclosed on Sunday.
While the decision was subject to a rare gag order at the behest of the state and the media cannot cite the verdict, the Israeli government has publicly stated on numerous occasions that defense exports to Myanmar were prohibited.
The complaint, led by prominent Israeli human rights lawyer Eitay Mack, who led the campaign for the Supreme Court ruling, calls for a criminal investigation into the deal. He accuses Cognyte and unnamed Ministry of Defense and Foreign Affairs officials overseeing these deals of “complicity in crimes against humanity in Myanmar”.
The complaint was filed on behalf of more than 60 Israelis, including a former Speaker of the House as well as prominent activists, scholars and writers.
The deal documents, provided to Reuters and Mack by activist group Justice for Myanmar, are a January 2021 letter with attachments from Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) to local regulators that lists Cognyte as the winning supplier. for intercept technology and notes the purchase. the order was issued “before December 30, 2020”.
Intercept spyware can give authorities the power to listen in on calls, view text messages and web traffic, including emails, and track users’ locations without the help of telecommunications companies and Internet.
Representatives of Cognyte, Myanmar’s military government and MPT did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Reuters. Japanese companies KDDI Corp (9433.T) and Sumitomo Corp (8053.T), which own stakes in MPT, declined to comment, saying they were unaware of details of the communications interception.
Israel’s attorney general did not respond to requests for comment on the complaint. The Foreign Office did not respond to requests for comment on the deal, while the Defense Ministry declined to comment.
Two people with knowledge of Myanmar’s interception plans separately told Reuters that the Cognyte system had been tested by MPT. They declined to be identified for fear of reprisals from the Burmese junta.
MPT uses interceptor spyware, a source with direct knowledge of the matter and three people briefed on the issue told Reuters although they did not identify the supplier. Reuters was unable to determine whether the sale of the Cognyte interceptor technology to MPT has been finalized.
Even before the coup, public concern had grown in Israel over the country’s defense exports to Myanmar after a brutal 2017 military crackdown on the country’s Rohingya population as the government of ‘Aung San Suu Kyi was in power. The crackdown sparked the Mack-led petition asking the Supreme Court to ban arms exports to Myanmar.
Since the coup, the junta has killed thousands of people including many political opponents, according to the United Nations.
KNOT UNDER FIRE
Many governments around the world allow the use of what are commonly referred to as “lawful intercepts” by law enforcement to catch criminals, but the technology is generally not used without some kind of procedure. legal, cybersecurity experts said.
According to industry leaders and activists previously interviewed by Reuters, Myanmar’s junta is using invasive telecommunications spyware without legal safeguards to protect human rights.
Mack said Cognyte’s participation in the tender contradicts statements made by Israeli officials after the Supreme Court’s ruling that no security exports were made to Myanmar.
While interceptor spyware is generally described as “dual-use” technology for civilian and defense purposes, Israeli law states that “dual-use” technology is classified as defense equipment.
Israeli law also requires companies exporting defence-related products to apply for export and marketing licenses when entering into transactions. The legal complaint said any officials who granted licenses to Cognyte for dealings with Myanmar should be investigated. Reuters was unable to determine whether Cognyte had obtained such licenses.
At the time of the 2020 deal, the political situation in Myanmar was tense, with the military contesting the results of an election won by Suu Kyi.
Norway’s Telenor (TEL.OL), which was previously one of Myanmar’s largest telecommunications companies before pulling out of the country last year, also said in a December 3 briefing and statement 2020 that he was concerned about the Myanmar authorities’ plans for a lawful interception. due to insufficient legal safeguards.
Nasdaq-listed Cognyte spun off in February 2021 from Verint Systems Inc (VRNT.O), a pioneering giant in Israel’s cybersecurity industry.
Cognyte, which had $474 million in annual revenue in its last fiscal year, was also banned from Facebook in 2021. Facebook owner Meta Platforms Inc (META.O) said in a report that Cognyte “allows you to manage fake accounts on social media platforms”.
Meta said his investigation identified Cognyte customers in a range of countries including Kenya, Mexico and Indonesia and their targets included journalists and politicians. He did not identify the customers or the targets.
Meta did not respond to a request for additional comment.
Last month, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund removed Cognyte from its portfolio, saying states that would be customers of its surveillance products and services “have been accused of extremely serious human rights abuses”. The fund did not name any states.
Cognyte has not publicly responded to the claims made by Meta or the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund.
Reporting by Fanny Potkin in Singapore and Poppy McPherson in Bangkok; Additional reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka in Tokyo and Dan Williams in Tel Aviv; Editing by Edwina Gibbs
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