Israeli surveillance firm Cognyte’s business in Myanmar exposed

January 15, 2023

NASDAQ-listed Israeli surveillance-for-hire corporation Cognyte Software Limited won a tender for the provision of lawful interception equipment to Myanmar in 2020 for the state-owned mobile operator, Myanma Posts and Telecommunications (MPT), in possible breach of international and Israeli law.

Documents leaked to Justice For Myanmar, which form the basis of a legal complaint filed in Israel on January 2, 2023, show that MPT issued Cognyte with a purchase order for a fixed data lawful interception gateway in December 2020, with work scheduled for completion by early June 2021. The system would allow the Myanmar military to tap calls in real time, aiding and abetting its atrocity crimes.

The legal complaint and an associated letter demanding Israel revoke Cognyte’s marketing and export licence for lawful interception systems to Myanmar were submitted by the attorney Eitay Mack on behalf of more than sixty individuals, including former speaker of the Knesset Avrum Burg.  

At the time Cognyte won MPT’s lawful interception tender, the transfer of defence equipment to Myanmar was illegal in Israel, and there were no safeguards in place to protect the people of Myanmar from the military’s electronic surveillance.

Since the military’s illegal coup attempt, the junta has scaled up electronic surveillance to monitor communications and track the location of activists and journalists, who have been arbitrarily arrested, tortured and murdered, which amount to crimes against humanity.  

In its 2021 country report on human rights in Myanmar, the US State Department found that “the regime regularly monitored private electronic communications through online surveillance; there were numerous reports that the regime monitored prodemocracy supporters” and that the military bought surveillance technology before its coup attempt.

Cognyte, formerly Verint Systems, has a history of selling lawful interception equipment to regimes notorious for the abuse of human rights, notably South Sudan.

In December 2021, Cognyte was banned from Facebook and 100 accounts linked to it were taken down. Facebook found that Cognyte had targeted individuals in Indonesia, Israel, Kenya, Mexico, Thailand and other countries. Targets included journalists and politicians.

Last month, Cognyte was excluded from the Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global, with the fund’s Council on Ethics finding that Cognyte’s “products and services may have enabled serious norm violations” and that “the information the company has shared does not adequately address the serious allegations that have been made.”

MPT’s Japanese operators

MPT is a joint operation with the Japanese multinationals KDDI and Sumitomo Corporation, which have continued their business with the junta, as it attempts to create a “digital dictatorship”.

MPT’s efforts to install and activate lawful interception technology are evidence of serious failings of KDDI and Sumitomo Corporation, through their KDDI Summit Global Myanmar joint venture, to meet their responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles and the OECD Guidelines.

In September 2021, KDDI and Sumitomo Corporation expressed “deep concern” about lawful interception in Myanmar, and stated that they “are not subject to direct instructions from the regulatory authority with regard to interception based on the telecommunications laws of Myanmar. Neither are the companies in a position to acknowledge the instructions issued by the authority or the details of any other facts.” The companies’ statement failed to outline the steps they would take to end their direct connection to the junta’s severe human rights violations, in accordance with their international human rights responsibilities. Justice For Myanmar calls on KDDI and Sumitomo Corporation to stop support for the junta or divest.  

In 2016, the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) of the World Bank Group guaranteed US $406.2 million to KDDI Summit Global Myanmar for Sumitomo Corporation’s equity and shareholder loan for the “operation and upgrade, reactivation and expansion” of MPT. KDDI and Sumitomo Corporation’s link to junta surveillance through MPT raises serious questions for MIGA and its member countries.  

In February 2021, the Netherlands-based ASN Bank divested from KDDI over human rights concerns in their Myanmar operations, while the Danish pension fund P+ has placed KDDI under observation. More investors should divest from KDDI, Sumitomo Corporation unless they stop supporting the junta in its surveillance and business interests.

Cognyte’s Myanmar partner

Cognyte is a partner of Khine Thitsar Company Limited, a Myanmar information technology business that is involved in surveillance, including lawful interception and CCTV.  

Khine Thitsar Company updated their website in late 2022 to list Cognyte as a vendor and partner, along with the Russian lawful interception supplier NEOS.

In October 2021, Cognyte sent a payment to Khine Thitsar for services, according to a Justice For Myanmar source, evidence of Cognyte’s business in Myanmar following the military’s coup attempt. Justice For Myanmar cannot confirm if the payment was for lawful interception or other Cognyte products or services.

Khine Thitsar has also received training in Israel together with MPT, according to the company’s old website.

Khine Thitsar director, Kyaw Tha, is the owner of Bamar Pte Ltd, a Singapore based company that has supplied arms and aircraft parts for the Myanmar military in 2016.

The items sold include spare parts for Mi-17 helicopters and 37mm twin barrel AA guns worth millions in US dollars, according to leaked Ministry of Defence documents concerning procurement.

The Myanmar military uses its air force to commit genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, including at the time Bamar was supplying the Myanmar military. In recent months, the junta carried out air strikes against a concert in Hpakant, killing more than 80, and a school in Let Yet Kone village, killing at least 12 people.

Bamar Pte Ltd applied to be struck off in Singapore days after Justice For Myanmar exposed their involvement in the supply of arms to the Myanmar military, but remain registered in Myanmar.

Justice For Myanmar calls for sanctions against Khine Thitsar Company Limited and its associated companies and individuals.

Explore the evidence

PTD document on the status of lawful interception system dated January 5, 2021: Download PDF (178 kb)

MPT letter to PTD on the completion of lawful interception system dated January 7, 2021: Download PDF (157 kb)