SINGAPORE, Jan 15 (Reuters) – Israel’s Cognyte Software Ltd ( CGNT.O ) won a tender to sell interception spyware to a Myanmar state-backed telecommunications firm a month before the Asian nation’s February 2021 military coup, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.
The agreement was reached even though Israel has claimed it halted transfers of defense technology to Myanmar following a ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court in 2017, according to a legal complaint recently filed with Israel’s attorney general and disclosed on Sunday.
While the ruling was subject to a rare gag order at the request of the state and the media cannot cite the ruling, Israel’s government has publicly stated on several occasions that defense exports to Myanmar are prohibited.
The complaint, led by high-profile Israeli human rights lawyer Eitay Mack who led the campaign for the Supreme Court ruling, calls for a criminal investigation into the deal. It accuses Cognyte and unnamed Defense and State Department officials overseeing such deals of “aiding and abetting crimes against humanity in Myanmar.”
The complaint was submitted on behalf of more than 60 Israelis, including a former speaker of the House as well as prominent activists, academics and authors.
The documents on the deal, provided to Reuters and Mack by the 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 interception technology supplier and notes the purchase order was given ” by 30 December 2020″.
Intercept spyware can give authorities the ability to listen to conversations, view text messages and web traffic, including email, and track users’ locations without the help of telecom and internet companies.
Representatives for Cognyte, Myanmar’s military government and the MPT did not respond to multiple Reuters requests for comment. Japan’s KDDI Corp ( 9433.T ) and Sumitomo Corp ( 8053.T ), which have stakes in MPT, declined to comment, saying they were not aware of details of the communications interception.
Israel’s attorney general did not respond to requests for comment on the complaint. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment on the agreement, while the Ministry of Defense declined to comment.
Two people with knowledge of Myanmar’s interception plans told Reuters that the Cognyte system was being tested by MPT. They declined to be identified for fear of retaliation from Myanmar’s junta.
MPT uses 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 interception technology to MPT was completed.
Even before the coup, public concern had grown in Israel about the country’s defense exports to Myanmar following a brutal 2017 military attack on the country’s Rohingya population while Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was in power. The crackdown led to the petition led by Mack 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 UNDER FIRE
Many governments around the world allow what is commonly called “lawful interception” to be used by law enforcement agencies to catch criminals, but the technology is not usually used without some form of legal process, cybersecurity experts have said.
According to industry executives and activists previously interviewed by Reuters, Myanmar’s junta is using invasive telecoms spyware without legal guarantees to protect human rights.
Mack said Cognyte’s participation in the tender contradicts statements made by Israeli officials after the Supreme Court ruling that no security exports had been made to Myanmar.
While interceptor spyware is usually 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 that export defense-related products to apply for export and marketing licenses when making deals. The legal complaint said all officials who granted Cognyte licenses for Myanmar deals should be investigated. Reuters was unable to determine whether Cognyte obtained such licenses.
Around the time of the 2020 agreement, the political situation in Myanmar was tense with the military debating the results of an election won by Suu Kyi.
Norway’s Telenor (TEL.OL), formerly one of the largest telecom companies in Myanmar before pulling out of the country last year, also said in a briefing and statement on 3 December 2020 that it was concerned about the Myanmar authorities’ plans for a legal cut-off. due to insufficient legal safeguards.
Nasdaq-listed Cognyte was 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 for its last financial year, was also banned from Facebook in 2021. Facebook owner Meta Platforms Inc ( META.O ) said in a report Cognyte “enables the management of fake accounts across social media platforms ».
Meta said the investigation identified Cognyte customers in a number of countries such as Kenya, Mexico and Indonesia, and that their targets included journalists and politicians. It did not identify the customers or the targets.
Meta did not respond to a request for further comment.
Norway’s sovereign wealth fund last month dropped Cognyte from its portfolio, saying states said to be customers of its surveillance products and services “have been accused of extremely serious human rights violations”. The fund has not named any states.
Cognyte has not responded publicly to the allegations from Meta or Norway’s state 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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