Israel’s Cognyte Software Ltd won a tender to sell interception spyware to a Myanmar state-backed telecommunications company a month before the Asian country’s February 2021 military coup, documents seen by Reuters showed.
The deal comes despite Israel’s claim that it halted defense technology transfers to Myanmar following a 2017 ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court, according to a legal complaint recently filed with Israel’s attorney general and revealed on Sunday.
While the ruling imposed a rare gag order at the request of the state and was unable to be cited by the media, the Israeli government has repeatedly publicly stated a ban on defense exports to Myanmar.
The complaint, led by Eitay Mack, a prominent Israeli human rights lawyer who spearheaded the campaign for the Supreme Court ruling, calls for a criminal investigation into the deal. It accused Cognyte, which oversees such deals, and unnamed defense and foreign ministry officials of “aiding and abetting crimes against humanity” in Myanmar.
The complaint was filed on behalf of more than 60 Israelis, including a former speaker of the House of Representatives and prominent activists, academics and authors.
Among the documents Myanmar Justice provided to Reuters and Mack about the deal was a letter from Myanmar Post and Telecommunications (MPT) to local regulators in January 2021, which listed Cognyte as the winning supplier of the interception technology and noted that The acquisition order was issued “before December 30, 2020”.
Blocking spyware allows authorities to eavesdrop on phone calls, view text messages and web traffic (including email) and track users’ locations without the assistance of telecommunications and internet companies.
Representatives for Cognyte, Myanmar’s junta and the MPT did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Reuters. Japan’s KDDI Corp and Sumitomo Corp, which own shares in MPT, declined to comment, saying they did not have details of the communication interception.
Israel’s attorney general did not respond to a request for comment on the complaint. The foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the deal, while the defense ministry declined to comment.
The Cognyte system has been tested by the MPT, two people with knowledge of Myanmar’s interception program told Reuters separately. They declined to be named for fear of reprisals from Myanmar’s military rulers.
MPT uses interception spyware, a source with direct knowledge of the matter and three people with knowledge of the issue told Reuters, although they did not name the vendor. Reuters could not confirm whether a deal to sell Cognyte’s interception technology to MPT had been finalized.
Even before the coup, the Israeli public had raised concerns about the country’s defense exports to Myanmar following the military’s brutal crackdown on the country’s Rohingya population in 2017 under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. The crackdown prompted Mack to launch a 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.
Cognyte is under attack
Many governments around the world allow law enforcement agencies to catch criminals using what is often called “lawful interception,” but the technique is often not used without any legal process, cybersecurity experts say.
Myanmar’s junta uses invasive telecom spyware to protect human rights without legal safeguards, according to industry executives and activists previously interviewed by Reuters.
Mack said Cognyte’s participation in the tender contradicted statements made by Israeli officials after the Supreme Court ruled that no security products were exported to Myanmar.
While intercepting spyware is often described as “dual-use” technology for both civilian and defense purposes, Israeli law states that “dual-use” technology is classified as defense equipment.
Israeli law also requires companies that export defense-related products to apply for export and marketing licenses when conducting transactions. Any officials who granted Cognyte licenses for Myanmar deals should be investigated, the legal complaint said. Reuters could not determine whether Cognyte had obtained such a license.
Around the time of the 2020 deal, political tensions in Myanmar have emerged, with the military contesting the election results won by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Norway’s Telenor, which was one of Myanmar’s largest telecommunications companies before exiting the country last year, also said in a briefing and statement on December 3, 2020 that it was uncomfortable with the Myanmar authorities’ lawful interception plan due to insufficient legal safeguards. worry.
Nasdaq-listed Cognyte was spun out in February 2021 from Verint Systems Inc, a pioneering giant in Israel’s cybersecurity industry.
Cognyte, which had annual revenue of $474 million in its last fiscal year, is also banned from Facebook in 2021. Cognyte “has the ability to manage fake accounts across social media platforms,” Facebook owner Meta Platforms Inc said in a report.
Meta said its investigation identified Cognyte clients in a range of countries, including Kenya, Mexico and Indonesia, and that their targets included journalists and politicians. It does not identify customers or targets.
Meta did not respond to a request for further comment.
Norway’s sovereign wealth fund dropped Cognyte from its portfolio last month, saying states that were alleged clients 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 Meta or Norway’s sovereign wealth fund’s claims.