Israeli spyware and surveillance tools sold to Bangladesh - report

Israel and Bangladesh do not have diplomatic relations and Bangladesh bans imports from Israel.

 Police officers check commuters at a checkpost during a countrywide lockdown, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 1, 2021. (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMMAD PONIR HOSSAIN)
Police officers check commuters at a checkpost during a countrywide lockdown, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 1, 2021.
(photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMMAD PONIR HOSSAIN)

Companies run by Israeli businessmen have sold spyware and surveillance tools to Bangladesh, despite a lack of diplomatic relations between Israel and Bangladesh, a report by Haaretz revealed on Tuesday.

Israeli companies and a company run by a former IDF intelligence commander but based in Europe sold the tools to Bangladeshi authorities in recent years. Israeli government regulations reportedly prohibit the sales of such technologies to Bangladesh and Bangladeshi regulations prohibit the import of Israeli products.

According to Haaretz, export records show that a SpearHead surveillance system made by the Passitora company was delivered to the South Asian country in June 2022. Passitora is owned by Tal Dillian, a former chief commander in the technological unit of the IDF's Intelligence Directorate.

Three people who were senior officers in the Intelligence Directorate told The New York Times, that Dilian was forced to retire from the IDF in 2003 after an internal investigation raised suspicions that he had been involved in funds mismanagement.

In 2019, Cyprus police began investigating Dilian after he spoke to Forbes about the SpearHead system, a surveillance van he was testing in the island nation as part of a company he owned called WiSpear. The spy van, a converted GMC ambulance equipped with millions of dollars of surveillance equipment, could access any phone within a 1-kilometer radius and read their WhatsApp messages, Facebook chats, texts, contacts and more.

 EVEN AFTER THE Cyberserve/Atraf disaster, Bennett is more afraid of overregulation than he is of lacking the power to save the private sector from its own occasional cyber laziness or cheapness. (credit: KACPER PEMPEL/ILLUSTRATION PHOTO/REUTERS) EVEN AFTER THE Cyberserve/Atraf disaster, Bennett is more afraid of overregulation than he is of lacking the power to save the private sector from its own occasional cyber laziness or cheapness. (credit: KACPER PEMPEL/ILLUSTRATION PHOTO/REUTERS)

"We are not the policemen of the world, and we are not the judges of the world. We work with the good guys. And sometimes the good guys don’t behave."

Israeli surveillance tech mogul Tal Dilian

Dilian told Forbes that the companies that provide surveillance tech can't be held responsible for abuses. "We are not the policemen of the world, and we are not the judges of the world. We work with the good guys. And sometimes the good guys don’t behave."

In June 2021, the Bangladeshi cabinet decided to buy a surveillance vehicle from a company called Toru Group Limited. Haaretz found that the company is registered in the British Virgin Islands, but its website makes no reference to the sort of vehicle Bangladeshi authorities had purchased. The company's CEO is an Israeli citizen named Assaf Elias.

A number of sources informed Haaretz that the surveillance vehicle purchased by Bangladesh was actually provided by Dilian's company, with Elias serving as a middleman. The CEO of the Toru Group reportedly served as a middleman for other deals with Dilian as well.

Official documents from Bangladesh’s Interior Ministry shared in the report show that the commander of the country's National Telecommunication Monitoring Center (NTMC), which monitors Bangladeshi citizens and has been accused of eavesdropping on opposition officials, protesters and ordinary citizens, flew to Greece multiple times to train on the surveillance vehicle.

The report additionally found that an Israeli company called Prelysis sold a surveillance system that intercepts Wi-Fi communications to Bangladesh's internal intelligence agency in 2019. The system was shipped through Cyprus, with Cypriot export records showing the deal costing about $3 million.

Prelysis is registered in both Israel and Cyprus and was founded and directed by Israeli citizen Kobi Naveh. Naveh stated that he could not respond when asked whether his company is overseen by Israel's Defense Ministry, according to Haaretz.

Additional Cyprus export records show that in 2019 a company called Coralco Tech, based in Singapore, provide equipment for the "active monitoring of mobile phones" to the Bangladeshi military. The company is owned by Israeli Eyal Almog and is also registered in Israel under his name.

Coralco told Haaretz that "due to the nature of its deals, the company does not comment on the identity of its clients and the products that they buy. In general, all deals involving the company are fully reported while attaining the proper licenses from the regulatory bodies, including Israel’s Defense Ministry. The company sells its products after an internal vetting process that takes into account human rights violations."

Yet another company called U-TX technologies also provided surveillance equipment to Bangladesh through Cyprus in 2019 and in 2021. The company is run by Israeli David Heled and there are at least two other Israelis serving as managers at the company.

Not the first time Israeli surveillance tech sold to Bangladesh

This isn't the first time Israeli surveillance tech has been reported as ending up in the South Asian country.

In 2021, Al Jazeera reported that Israeli-made surveillance equipment used to monitor mobile phones was bought by Bangladesh in 2018 using a Bangkok-based middleman. The technology in that deal was provided by a company called Picsix.

Picsix's website states that it "develops cutting-edge interception technology for government agencies around the world" and that the company was founded by former Israeli intelligence experts. The company's headquarters are in Even Yehuda, according to Israel's Defense Ministry. According to LinkedIn, the CEO of Picsix is Menachem Kenan.

Cellebrite, another Israeli firm, sold surveillance tech to Bangladesh's Rapid Action Battalion in 2021, according to Haaretz.

Cyprus is a hub for spyware and surveillance tech

Cyprus has become a central hub for the spyware and surveillance tech industry, with the European Parliament's Committee of Inquiry investigating the use of Pegasus and equivalent surveillance spyware in November finding that "on paper, there is a robust legal framework, including EU rules, but in practice, Cyprus is an attractive place for companies selling surveillance technologies."

"Recent scandals have damaged the reputation of the country though and a set of new legislative initiatives tightening the legal framework for exports and improving compliance is expected to be finalised in 2023." The report pointed to Dilian's interview with Forbes as an example of scandal in the island country, with multiple pages of the report focusing on Dilian and his associates.

The committee's report also noted that "Cyprus seems to have a very close collaboration with Israel in the area of surveillance technologies" and that the country is home to about 29 Israeli surveillance tech companies

Israeli spyware industry under fire

Israeli spyware and surveillance tech have been in the spotlight in recent years after scandals surrounding the use of technology from the NSO Group, Candiru and other Israeli companies by governments around the world to target activists, politicians and journalists.

In December, The New York Times revealed that, despite blacklisting the NSO Group in 2021, US authorities have used other Israeli spyware technologies to hack mobile phones. The Drug Enforcement Administration has deployed a tool called Graphite, made by the Israeli firm Paragon, five people familiar with the agency’s operations told the Times.

In 2021, Forbes revealed that Paragon was cofounded and directed by Ehud Schneorson, the former commander of the IDF Intelligence Directorate's Unit 8200, and former prime minister Ehud Barak.

The Times additionally found that the CIA had purchased NSO's Pegasus for the government of Djibouti under the Trump administration and that the FBI had attempted to deploy Pegasus as well in 2020 and 2021, but eventually abandoned the idea.

In 2021, the US Commerce Department placed NSO and Candiru on a blacklist, banning American companies from doing business with them. The White House has also warned that it would fight the "illegitimate use of technology, including commercial spyware and surveillance technology, and we will stand against digital authoritarianism.”

Two senior Israeli officials and an Israeli tech company executive told the Times that tougher restrictions have been placed on Israel's cybersecurity industry in order to prevent further blacklisting, including a restriction on the number of countries to which the companies can sell their spyware. This has led to severe financial consequences and sent three companies into bankruptcy.

The Israeli Globes business daily reported in April that the Defense Ministry has been making it extremely difficult for spyware companies to sell software abroad, even canceling existing permits before they expire.

Amir Eshel, the outgoing director general of the Defense Ministry, told the Times that the Defense Ministry has little power over any Israeli who sets up businesses outside Israel. “It certainly disturbs me that a veteran of our intelligence and cyber units, who employs other former senior officials, operates around the world without any oversight."