The Bangladesh government has bought advanced surveillance equipment, developed by a company controlled by the former commander of Israeli intelligence’s technology unit, in 2022, according to a report carried by Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Tuesday.
Government documents and international export records show, the daily reported, the procurement was done despite Bangladesh not being on Israel’s list of countries that such technology may be sold to and despite its consistently ‘poor human rights record’.
The system consists of a van equipped with surveillance equipment and tracking software, which breaks into mobile phones using the cellphone network or Wi-Fi network for data "including encrypted WhatsApp messages, Facebook chats, contact lists, calls and text messages within a radius of about half a kilometer," reports Haaretz.
Bangladesh and Israel do not have any diplomatic relations, as Bangladesh does not recognize the State of Israel.
Israeli companies and a company run by a former Israeli Military Intelligence (IDF) commander but based in Europe sold the tools to the government in recent years. Israeli government regulations reportedly prohibit the sales of such technologies to Bangladesh, and 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 Dhaka in June 2022. Tal Dillian, a former chief commander in the technological unit of the IDF, owns Passitora.
Meanwhile, Dhaka has not denied the Haaretz report. The home minister of Bangladesh, Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said his ministry had acquired surveillance technology for “lawful” purposes.
“The government has taken the initiative to introduce an ‘Integrated Lawful Interception System (ILIS)’ to monitor social media and thwart various anti-state and anti-government activities,” said on Thursday.
“Modern technology like Open Source Intelligence Technology (OSINT) has been added in the National Tele-communication Monitoring Centre (NTMC) under the home ministry to thwart anti-state and anti-government activities,” he added.
Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) criticized home minister’s comments, arguing that in the absence of any specific policy related to cyber surveillance, the advanced tools would erode fundamental constitutional rights related to privacy, communication, and freedom of expression.
A researcher based in Norway linked the recent purchases with Bangladesh’s next election, expected in December 2023 or January 2024, reports BenarNews.
“As the election approaches, this shopping spree of sophisticated spyware shows how desperate state agents are to snoop into opposition activists and their strategies,” Mubashar Hasan, a Bangladeshi scholar at the University of Oslo, told BenarNews.
“Despotic governments use spyware worldwide to crush their respective opposition. And there is no proof that the Bangladesh government will act differently.”
The recent purchases reportedly include “a spy van” said to be capable of intercepting sensitive data, including encrypted messages from WhatsApp, within a specific radius.
Asked about the product, Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert at Harvard University, told BenarNews that vulnerabilities lie more with users’ devices than with the encrypted messaging apps.
“WhatsApp and Signal are – as far as we know – secure,” he said. “But your phone is not. So if I hack your phone and read your screen, I can read your WhatsApp and Signal messages even though I haven't hacked either messaging program.”