Israeli-owned firms reportedly selling spyware to Bangladesh with no oversight

Companies founded by Israelis and based in Cyprus, Singapore and elsewhere have been selling surveillance tech to Dhaka, circumventing Defense Ministry regulation of such exports

Illustrative: Police clash with protesters outside the Baitul Mukarram Mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Oct. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmud Hossain Opu)
Illustrative: Police clash with protesters outside the Baitul Mukarram Mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Oct. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmud Hossain Opu)

Spyware developed by several firms linked to Israel or led by Israelis has been sold to the government of Bangladesh, according to a joint investigation between the Haaretz daily and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

Israel and Bangladesh do not have any diplomatic relations, and the South Asian country has a markedly poor human rights record.

Bangladesh does not recognize the State of Israel and in general refuses to do business with any Israeli entities. Bangladeshi citizens are forbidden from traveling to Israel, and until 2021 the country’s passports read “this passport is valid for all countries for the world except Israel.” In 2003, a Bangladeshi journalist was arrested for attempting to travel to Israel and ultimately sentenced to seven years in prison for the offense.

According to the Haaretz report, several Israeli cybertech firms that are either based in other countries or appear to operate shell companies in other countries have sold the Bangladeshi government equipment that can be used to monitor the communications and activities of citizens.

Israel’s Defense Ministry must approve sales of sensitive technology to other countries, but has little recourse against Israeli-run companies that are based abroad.

One such firm named by Haaretz is known as Passitora, controlled by former senior Israeli military intelligence officer Tal Dilian as part of his Intellexa Alliance group of spyware companies. According to the report, Passitora, which is registered in Cyprus, sold a SpearHead system — a surveillance van that can hack into phones within a radius of about half a kilometer — to an arm of the Bangladeshi Interior Ministry.

Another such company named by Haaretz is Toru Group Limited, which utilizes a Swiss address but is registered in the British Virgin Islands and run by an Israeli citizen, Assaf Elias. Haaretz cited three sources claiming that Toru Group merely acts as a middleman to sell technology made by Dilian’s Intellexa companies.

A third company named in the report, Prelysis, is based in Cyprus and Israel and founded and directed by Israeli citizen Kobi Naveh. The firm reportedly sold a system that enables the interception of Wi-Fi communications to Bangladesh in 2019.

A company named Coralco Tech, based in Singapore and owned by Israeli Eyal Almog, sold equipment that can monitor cellphones to Bangladesh in 2019, while U-TX, based in Cyprus and directed by Israeli David Heled, also sold similar technology to Dhaka.

Dilian’s Intellexa group was accused last year of providing high-end phone surveillance equipment to a notorious Sudanese militia.

The burgeoning spyware trade in Israel has landed the country in some touchy diplomatic spats in recent years. In the highest-profile case, Israel’s NSO Group has been accused of selling its spyware to countries with poor human rights records, including Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Pakistan, Hungary, Azerbaijan and many more.

The company has been involved in numerous scandals in recent years and has faced a torrent of international criticism over allegations it allows governments, including dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, to spy on dissidents and rights activists.

The US blacklisted Israeli spyware firms NSO and Candiru in late 2021, claiming that they supply “spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers.”

An Illustration of a man holding his phone with an NSO Group logo with a computer screen in the background, in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The use of NSO and other Israeli spyware has been the subject of investigations in the US, the European Union, Greece, Spain and many more countries.

Israel’s defense exports are regulated according to a 2007 law that requires defense contractors to consider what and where Israeli weapons will be used for. The law is designed to prevent companies from knowingly selling weapons to countries that intend to use them to commit atrocities.

While the contractors are legally required to take potential human rights violations into consideration under the law, this requirement can be overruled out of diplomatic or security concerns. The Defense Ministry does not make public the list of countries that is approved to receive Israeli defense exports, though sources told Haaretz that Bangladesh is not on the list.

Amir Eshel, the outgoing director general of the Defense Ministry, told The New York Times last month that Israel has no control over what Dilian and other Israelis do with businesses registered outside of 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,” Eshel said.

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