Israeli drones, spyware sold to Myanmar despite ban: report

Israeli drones, spyware sold to Myanmar despite ban: report
Israeli companies Cellebrite, Elbit Systems and Gaia Automotive Industries have reportedly sold arms and spyware to Myanmar.
4 min read
02 March, 2021
Data acquired with Cellebrite spyware has been used as evidence in Myanmar [Getty]
Surveillance drones and sophisticated hacking software produced by Israeli and Western firms have been sold to Myanmar, despite bans on exports to the country, a new report claims.

Spyware purchased by Burmese forces is now being used to crack down on dissent following a military coup earlier this month, The New York Times reported on Monday.

The hacking software and military technology made its way into Myanmar despite embargos on arms and dual-use technology introduced in several contries over the alleged ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.

Israel is among the countries to have barred the export of such technology to Myanmar after it emerged Israeli weaponery was being used against the Rohingya ethnic minority.

It is unclear, then, how Israeli-made armoured vehicles that did not enter mass production until after the ban ended up on the streets of Naypyidaw on February 1 as military generals seized power.

Military experts identified the armoured vehicles as a model produced by Israel's Gaia Automotive Industries. 

The company's head, Shlomi Shraga, told the NYT he had not seen images of the vehicles being used in Myanmar and insisted that all Gaia Automative exports had the requisite licenses from Israel's defence ministry.

"Let's hope that the people of Myanmar live in peace and under a democratic regime," Shraga said

Technology produced by Israeli arms manufacturer Elbit Systems and Israeli digital intelligence company Cellebrite has also been purchased by Myanmar, the NYT review of Burmese budget allocations found.

Elbit claims it has had "no dealings with Myanmar since 2015 or 2016" but spare parts for military-grade surveillance drones produced by the company were sold to Burmese forces in 2019. The sale of parts is included within the arms embargo.
Read more: Elbit protest highlights the power of unity in action

The spare parts were sold to Myanmar Future Science, a company that claims to be an "educational and teaching aid supplier".

U Kyi Thar, chief executive of the company, said Myanmar Future Science undertook repair work on the military-grade drones after buying the parts directly from Elbit.

Hacked data used as evidence

The documents, provided to the NYT by Justice For Myanmar, show how Myanmar spent millions of dollars on technology that can track people's live locations, listen to their conversations and mine phones and computers for data.

The latest budget included funds to MacQuisition software, which is designed to extract data from Apple computers. MacQuisition is produced by BlackBag Technologies, an American company that was acquired by Israel's Cellebrite last year.

Burmese human rights lawyer U Khin Maung Zaw said Cellebrite hardware and software has been used by police in court cases against journalists and activists.

Data collected with Cellebrite technology was used to convict two Reuters journalists in 2018. Khin Maung Zaw, who represented the journalists, says the technology was also used in court cases in 2019 and 2020.

"The cybersecurity department is still using that technology," the lawyer siad. "To my knowledge, they use Cellebrite to scan and recover data from cellphones."

A spokesperson for the company told the NYT Cellebrite stopped selling technology to Myanmar in 2018 and BlackBag stopped sales to the country last year. The company has the ability to remotely suspend licenses, essentially deleting the software from any devices.

"In the extremely rare case when our technology is used in a manner that does not meet international law or does not comply with Cellebrite's values, we immediately flag these licenses for nonrenewal and do not provide software updates," the spokeswoman said.
Read more: How global powers failed Rohingya Muslims

Middleman companies like Myanmar Future Science and MySpace International have been used to acquire the technology from international firms like Cellebrite.

International embargoes still hold technology companies liable for the end users of their products even if they were sold to a secondary entity, however.

Myspace International is headed by Kyaw Kyaw Htun, a Burmese businessman with links to the top brass of the military.

The company's website lists Cellebrite, BlackBag and Sweden-based mobile forensics technology company MSAB as being among its "main suppliers".

The Burmese company's website has since been taken down following extensive questioning over its relationship with Cellebrite.

It is not the firm time an Israeli technology firm has been accused of violating export laws by supplying spyware to an authoritarian regime.

In recent years, NSO Group has been exposed to multiple lawsuits over its supply of mobile phone hacking software to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries suspected of using the spyware agaisnt journalists and dissidents.

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