Myanmar Acquired Spyware From Israeli Cyber-intelligence Firm Cognyte, New Docs Reveal

Israel halted defense exports to Myanmar in 2018 following the junta’s brutal crackdown on the Rohingya minority. In 2020 Cognyte won a tender for an advanced system to spy on civilians

Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron
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Myanmar's junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing presiding over the 75th annual Union Day, last week
Myanmar's junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing presiding over the 75th annual Union Day, last weekCredit: STR - AFP
Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron

Israeli company Cognyte, which is traded on the Nasdaq, won a tender by a Myanmar state-owned company to provide an advanced cyber-intelligence system to be installed at the heart of the country’s telecommunications network – in order to monitor and eavesdrop on users, documents obtained by the NGO Justice For Myanmar reveal.

Although the U.S. and the EU have imposed an arms embargo on Myanmar, Israel initially refused to stop selling weapons to the military junta that now openly controls the country. Exports and contacts with the regime continued even as Myanmar pursued genocidal policies towards its Rohingya minority in the years 2016-2017. Only following extensive media coverage and public pressure did Israel halt exports at the start of 2018.

The documents reveal plans by Myanmar’s regime to install “lawful interception” tools on the networks of all the country’s telecommunications providers. Such systems are used in many countries to provide police and enforcement agencies with tools to track citizens. They monitor network activity, doing everything from locating mobile devices to eavesdropping on conversation, hacking into devices, and extracting text and encrypted messages.

The documents show that Cognyte won a tender in December 2020 to supply a system to Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications, a state-owned company controlled by the country’s Communications Ministry. The contract was awarded about a month before the junta seized power in a coup.

The MPT document stating Cognyte had won the tender
An MPT document stating the Cognyte system had already been purchased

While installation of the system was scheduled to be completed in June 2021, it is not clear whether it was delivered or if it is operational. Sources in Myanmar told Reuters that the government telecommunications company had tested the system.

In November 2020, a month before the system was acquired, Myanmar conducted elections in which the party of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and the country’s civilian leader, won by a wide margin. The army claimed election fraud, signaling that it had no intention of accepting the results. The following February, it staged a coup, arrested Aung San Suu Kyi as well as ministers and members of parliament. She was later sentenced to 26 years imprisonment.

Myanmar’s ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ousted President Win Myint, on trial in 2021Credit: HANDOUT - AFP

According to the UN, at least 1,600 people were killed and 12,000 others arrested during the protests and rioting that broke out after the coup. Four pro-democracy activists were sentenced to death after being convicted on terror charges.

Myanmar’s military and security forces showed “a flagrant disregard for human life,” the UN said in a report, alleging that many people were arrested at random, brutally tortured, shot in the head and burned to death.

A U.S. State Department report said the junta “regularly monitored private electronic communications through online surveillance; there were numerous reports that the regime monitored pro-democracy supporters … Before the coup, the military built an 'electronic warfare capability' and bought surveillance technology, including cell phone-hacking tools to monitor pro-democracy activists.”

Cognyte did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Israel’s Defense Ministry didn’t respond to queries by Haaretz whether Cognyte had requested approval to enter the tender and sell equipment to Myanmar and whether the ministry had approved the sale.

Following disclosure of the documents testifying to the sale of the Israeli system, human rights lawyer Eitay Mack sent a letter to Israeli Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, in which he and dozens of other human rights activists called for a criminal investigation into Cognyte as well as the defense and foreign ministries for allegedly aiding and abetting crimes against humanity in Myanmar.

At the same time, the activists have also sent a letter to the Defense Ministry export-supervision arm, calling on it to cancel Cognyte’s permit export and marketing licenses to Myanmar.

“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,” Mack said in the letter. “There has never been legal infrastructure or procedures to oversee ‘lawful interception’ in Myanmar. The seriousness of the situation in Myanmar was known both before and after Cognyte won the tender. Cognyte and senior officials in the defense and foreign ministries cannot claim that they weren’t aware of how serious the situation is in Myanmar. They knew or should have known that they were providing assistance to crimes against humanity.”

In February 2021, U.S.-Israeli company Verint spun-off its intelligence-cyber solutions division into a standalone company traded on the Nasdaq called Cognyte. Verint today is focused on artificial intelligence and data analysis technology, but in the past it sold advanced monitoring technology to repressive regimes in Azerbaijan, Indonesia, South Sudan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Cognyte currently shares the same address in Herzliya with Verint and provides the cyberintelligence services Verint once did.

This week Haaretz revealed that U-TX Technologies, a Cognyte subsidiary operating in Cyprus, provided surveillance equipment to Bangladesh, despite its poor human rights record. The company supplied a “Web Intelligence” system valued at $2 million and a cellular tracking system for military intelligence valued at $500,000 to the National Telecommunication Monitoring Center, an arm of the Bangladeshi Interior Ministry responsible for tracking internet and social media use.

Over the past two years, Justice For Myanmar has exposed several arms deals that violated international sanctions on the junta and involved corruption on the part of regime officials.

Among other things, it obtained official documents showing how a local company, which advertised itself as the exclusive representative for various Israeli arms exporters and approved the Israeli Defense Ministry, offered a variety of security systems to the Myanmar army. A senior executive was recently arrested in Thailand on suspicion of involvement in drug trafficking and money laundering.

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