Myanmar junta: Israeli drones, hacking software used on protesters – NYT

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After a nearly a decade of an often controversial democracy, Myanmar’s forceful backslide into totalitarian military rule has so far continued to stand strong despite widespread pro-democracy protests and strikes across the country.

The New York Times on Sunday published a report which claims that government budget records revealed that “Israeli-made surveillance drones, European iPhone cracking devices and American software that can hack into computers and vacuum up their contents,” despite various sanctions and international arms embargoes which prohibit such systems from being exported to the country.

“The military is now using those very tools to brutally crack down on peaceful protesters risking their lives to resist the military junta and restore democracy,” Ma Yadanar Maung, a spokeswoman for Justice For Myanmar, a group that monitors the Tatmadaw’s abuses, told the Times.

On the Israeli front, the Times article had cited three Israeli defense manufacturers which are been suspected of violating international arms embargoes: Elbit Systems, Cellebrite and Gaia Automotive Industries.

The report found that Israeli arms manufacturer Elbit, which claims to have had “no dealings with Myanmar since 2015 or 2016” allegedly supplied spare parts to repair military grade Elbit drones in late 2019.

In 2018 however, Israel essentially blocked all military exports to Myanmar, after reports emerged that alleged Israeli weaponry was being sold to the Myanmar Army, which had been accused of genocidal actions towards the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority.

According to the NYT report, U Kyi Thar, the chief executive of Myanmar Future Science, a company which claims to be an “educational and teaching aid supplier,” confirmed that his company began the repair work on the drones in late 2019 and continued into 2020.

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“We ordered the spare parts from the Israeli company called Elbit because they have good quality and Elbit is well-known,” Mr. Kyi Thar told the Times.

The report added that Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the Tatmadaw chief who led the military coup last month, visited Elbit’s offices during a 2015 trip to Israel.

In addition to Elbit, the Times’ report claimed that the latest government budget in Myanmar included “MacQuisition” forensic software, which is designed to extract and collect data from Apple computers.

The US-based company that designed the software was bought last year by Israeli cybersecurity company Cellebrite.

This is not the first time Cellebrite has received criticism for its involvement in the suppression of peaceful protests. Last summer, international pressure led the company to stop selling its services to Hong Kong and China.

Human rights activists have also criticized the company’s $30 million contract with the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), claiming the agency used Cellebrite technologies to spy on asylum seekers and political activists.

A spokesperson for Cellebrite told the Times that it stopped selling to Myanmar in 2018, and that BlackBag had stopped selling to the country once it was acquired by Cellebrite.

“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.

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In addition to the BlackBag allegations, one of Myanmar’s top human-rights lawyers, U Khin Maung Zaw, who is currently representing the ousted civilian leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, told the Times that Myanmar’s police has presented evidence which was acquired using Cellebrite technologies in trials which he worked on in 2019 and 2020.

Cellebrite came under fire in 2018, during widely criticized trial in which Khin Maung Zaw represented two Reuters journalists who uncovered evidence of a Rohingya massacre the year before.

After it had come to light that Cellebrite forensic technologies were used to gather data from the detained reporters’ phones, the company added the ability to remotely suspend licenses, in a way which erases software from the machinery, rendering the device essentially useless.

“The cybersecurity department is still using that technology,” Khin Maung Zaw told the Times. “To my knowledge, they use Cellebrite to scan and recover data from cellphones.”

The report also alleged that while both Cellebrite and BlackBag denied any affiliation with a known “middleman” for international arms deals named Dr. Kyaw Kyaw Htun.

The Times report said two people with knowledge of police procurements said that Dr. Kyaw Kyaw Htun’s companies supply most of the imported Western surveillance technology for the Myanmar police.

The report said that the day after the Times reporter posed “extensive questions” about the relationship between MySpace International – which was founded by Dr. Kyaw Kyaw Htum – and Cellebrite, the entire MySpace International website was taken down.

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The third Israeli company mentioned in the Times article is Gaia Automotive Industries, whose armored vehicles were confirmed by military experts to have been used by the Myanmar military during the coup on February 1 in the capital Naypyidaw.

One of the military experts – Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher with the arms and military expenditure program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – told the Times that the vehicles used in the coup featured Gaia’s distinctive hood handles, air inlets and headlight settings.

The vehicles which the experts claimed were used by the Myanmar military did not go into mass production until after the 2018 arms embargo.

Gaia Automotive head Shlomi Shraga told the Times he had “not seen” any photos of Gaia’s armored vehicles cruising through Naypyidaw and stressed that Israel’s Defense Ministry licenses all of his exports.

“Let’s hope that the people of Myanmar live in peace and under a democratic regime,” Shraga added.

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