Myanmar’s Military Regime Is Using EU-Developed Tools to Unlock People’s Smartphones

Written by Bill Toulas
Last updated September 25, 2021

Nobody is safe from Myanmar’s military regime and the police’s investigations, and it appears that software tools developed in Europe are aiding the junta that rules the long-troubled Asian country to perform its repressive activities. More specifically, and according to a report that comes from The Intercept, the Myanmar regime is using a digital forensics tool supplied by MSAB, a Swedish software company that promotes itself as a leading mobile forensics provider.

MSAB makes three products, namely the XRY (which can extract and decode data from smartphones and apps), the XAMN (which can search for evidence from a large set of collected data), and XEC (for streamlining and automating the monitoring of certain large numbers of targets, generate live alerts about their activities, etc.). MSAB also claims to be able to extract call data, contacts, GPS history, and exfiltrate messages sent and received via SMS, Signal, WhatsApp, and more IM apps.

According to publicly available documents of tenders and state budgets that were posted on the government websites, MSAB first sold its forensic tools in 2019, after the U.S. had already reported on crimes against humanity in Myanmar. In 2021, MSAB was revealed to be planning to sell more phone data extraction tools to the Myanmar government - and more specifically, the Bureau of Special Investigations. This time, they were more careful not to appear in the tenders directly, so they used a third-party distributor.

As every provider of forensic tools, MSAB maintains that its mission is to help make the world a safer place and that they only sell products to law enforcement authorities and police departments. In this case, MSAB states that after the 2021 coup that had leader Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her party arrested and detained for corruption, all software licenses were revoked. This, however, doesn’t mean the current regime isn’t capable of using and abusing these tools.

We have seen similar cases like the German-made “FinSpy” being used in Egypt against organizations and activists, so there’s a case for the need to regulate the space. In the EU, companies like MSAB are funded by research programs like ‘Horizon Europe,’ so the company should be accountable to the public on how these tools are being deployed. There will always be unregulated spy tools circulating out there, but having EU-funded software being used to oppress people is simply unacceptable.

In the meantime, Suu Kyi’s trial is set to begin soon in a Naypyidaw court, four months after she was arrested by military officials. Analysts believe that the outcome will be imprisonment for the rest of her life and the outlawing of the NLD party. However, with people still protesting, even after thousands of detentions and the killing of 850 civilians, nothing can be written off yet.

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