Reported spyware deal implicates Israeli firm in Myanmar junta’s crimes, critics say

Cognyte’s technology has allegedly helped the junta target rebel groups and civilians.
By RFA Burmese
2023.01.23
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Reported spyware deal implicates Israeli firm in Myanmar junta’s crimes, critics say The headquarters of the Israeli company Cognyte in Herzliya near Tel Aviv, Israel, January 13, 2023.
Reuters

Human rights groups are criticizing a reported deal between Myanmar’s military and an Israeli tech firm for intercept spyware, accusing the company of aiding and abetting the junta in crimes against humanity.

Israel’s Cognyte Software won a tender to sell the intercept spyware to Myanmar shortly before the February 2021 coup, when the military ousted the democratically elected government, documents obtained by activist group Justice for Myanmar showed.

Intercept spyware allows governments to listen to telephone calls, read text messages and emails, and determine the whereabouts of internet users without having to go through internet and telecommunications companies.

These documents, which detailed the Myanmar military’s plan to install “lawful interception” tools on telecommunications networks, were the basis of a legal complaint in Israel, and a letter associated with the documents called for the country to ban Cognyte’s marketing and export license.

“The term ‘lawful interception’ creates a false impression of normalcy that obscures the fact that Israelis are once again aiding and abetting crimes against humanity,” Israeli human rights leader Eitay Mack, who led the effort to file the complaint.

Such a deal would violate a 2017 ban imposed by Israel's Supreme Court on defense transfers to Myanmar, the campaign for which was also headed by Mack.

Used to violate human rights

Rights groups, observers, and the shadow National Unity Government say that the junta has been using the technology to violate its citizens’ human rights.

“We can say that Israel is one of the top countries in surveillance tech. That’s why the technical support that the Myanmar military received from [Cognyte] must be really sophisticated and effective,” Kyaw Saw Han, a security analyst, told Radio Free Asia’s Burmese Service.

He said the intercept spyware will have a negative impact on civilians by further depriving them of their freedom to communicate. The junta has already imposed draconian restrictions on the internet in some parts of the country, and has blocked access to Facebook. 

With the spyware, the military could listen in on people’s private conversations or even record them, Kyaw Saw Han said.  

“It will especially hurt the resistance forces that are operating in this political situation,” he said, referring to armed groups opposed to the junta, many of which sprung up after the coup.

Rebel groups believe they have been compromised by the intercept technology, although they don’t have proof, Khun Daniel of the Karenni National Progressive Party told RFA.

“Their ground activities, food transportation and guerrilla operations have been hindered and many members have been arrested because of the information insecurity caused by the military’s use of such equipment,” he said.

But the technology empowers the junta not only against armed enemies. It can also use the tech against civilians, said Yadanar Maung, a Justice for Myanmar spokesperson.

Call for Israeli government to take action

He said the military can eavesdrop and intercept the phone calls of political activists, journalists and civilians that can lead to arrests, torture and even killings. 

That is why Justice for Myanmar has requested that the Israeli government take action against those responsible for the reported deal between Cognyte and the military.

“If a company provides equipment to assist an organization in aggressively and cruelly torture and kill innocent civilians, or if such support is found, they are also partially complicit in these crimes, according to legal and literal point of view,” Sai Kyi Zin Soe, a political analyst, told RFA.

But Thein Tun Oo, the executive director of the Thayninga Institute for Strategic Studies, which is made up of former military officers, told RFA that the technology is very effective in helping them with “counter-terrorism threats” – addressing security threats to the military and government leaders.

“It is no longer uncommon to violate and eavesdrop on the personal information of individuals.  There have been many cases when we can prevent certain security-related threats just by such interception,” he said. “If this system can actually run at full power, it would be very beneficial.”

Thein Tun Oo said that although human rights groups are urging countries to impose an arms embargo against Myanmar, it will not be effective because large international arms companies tend to prioritize their economic interests.

RFA attempted to contact Cognyte and a spokesperson for the junta for comment on Friday, but received no reply as of Monday. 

13 countries fingered, including US

According to a Jan. 16 report by the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, a group of independent experts working to support human rights efforts in the country, the Myanmar military is using weapons technologies and raw materials for producing weapons from companies in 13 countries including the United States, France, Australia, Japan, Germany,  India, Singapore, China and Ukraine. 

Kyaw Zaw, the spokesman for the president’s office of the shadow National Unity Government, told RFA that the world must stop providing the junta with military tools.

“The NUG government wants to request that governments, including Israel, order an injunction to prevent any equipment, whether it's non-weapons technology, or communication technology or any technology that supports violence, from being sold to the Myanmar military, because it is committing inhumane violence in Myanmar.”

He said that the United Nations and the international community need to sanction companies that cooperate with the Myanmar military junta. 

Although the UN Security Council passed a resolution on the crisis in Myanmar on Dec. 21, the decision does not yet include a ban on arms sales to the Myanmar military. Russia and China–key suppliers of weaponry to the junta–would have veto power over such a proposal.

Yanghee Lee, a member of the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, said “Foreign companies are enabling Myanmar’s military to produce weapons it uses to commit daily rights atrocities against the Myanmar people.” 

In order to protect the people of Myanmar, the council in its report urged UN member countries to block the support that the Myanmar military receives, including taking targeted action against arms dealers and those responsible for supplying weapons factories.

Translated by Myo Min Aung. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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