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Israel’s Cognyte won tender to sell intercept spyware to Myanmar before coup

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Israel's Cognyte won tender to sell intercept spyware to Myanmar before coup
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Israel’s Cognyte Software Ltd (CGNT.O) won a tender to sell intercept spyware to a Myanmar state-backed telecommunications firm a month before the Asian nation’s February 2021 military coup, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.

The deal was made even though Israel has claimed it stopped defence technology transfers to Myanmar following a 2017 ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court, according to a legal complaint recently filed with Israel’s attorney general and disclosed on Sunday.

While the ruling was subjected to a rare gag order at the request of the state and the media cannot cite the verdict, Israel’s government has publicly stated on numerous occasions that defence exports to Myanmar are banned.

The complaint, led by high-profile Israeli human rights lawyer Eitay Mack who spearheaded the campaign for the Supreme Court ruling, calls for a criminal investigation into the deal. It accuses Cognyte and unnamed defence and foreign ministry officials who supervise such deals of “aiding and abetting crimes against humanity in Myanmar.”

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The complaint was filed on behalf of more than 60 Israelis, including a former speaker of the house as well as prominent activists, academics and writers.

The documents about the deal, provided to Reuters and Mack by activist group Justice for Myanmar, are a January 2021 letter with attachments from Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) to local regulators that list Cognyte as the winning vendor for intercept technology and note the purchase order was issued “by 30th Dec 2020”.

Intercept spyware can give authorities the power to listen in on calls, view text messages and web traffic including emails, and track the locations of users without the assistance of telecom and internet firms.

Representatives for Cognyte, Myanmar’s military government and MPT did not respond to multiple Reuters requests for comment. Japan’s KDDI Corp (9433.T) and Sumitomo Corp (8053.T), which have stakes in MPT, declined to comment, saying they were not privy to details on communication interception.

Israel’s attorney general did not respond to requests for comment about the complaint. The foreign affairs ministry did not respond to requests for comment about the deal, while the defence ministry declined to comment.

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Two people with knowledge of Myanmar’s intercept plans separately told Reuters the Cognyte system was tested by MPT. They declined to be identified for fear of retribution by Myanmar’s junta.

MPT uses intercept spyware, a source with direct knowledge of the matter and three people briefed on the issue told Reuters although they did not identify the vendor. Reuters was unable to determine whether the sale of Cognyte intercept technology to MPT was finalised.

Even before the coup, public concern had mounted in Israel about the country’s defence exports to Myanmar after a brutal 2017 crackdown by the military on the country’s Rohingya population while Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was in power. The crackdown prompted the petition led by Mack that asked the Supreme Court to ban arms exports to Myanmar.

Since the coup, the junta has killed thousands of people including many political opponents, according to the United Nations.

COGNYTE UNDER FIRE

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Many governments around the world allow for what are commonly called ‘lawful intercepts’ to be used by law enforcement agencies to catch criminals but the technology is not ordinarily employed without any kind of legal process, cybersecurity experts have said.

According to industry executives and activists previously interviewed by Reuters, Myanmar’s junta is using invasive telecoms spyware without legal safeguards to protect human rights.

Mack said Cognyte’s participation in the tender contradicts statements made by Israeli officials after the Supreme court ruled that no security exports had been made to Myanmar.

While intercept spyware is typically described as “dual-use” technology for civilian and defence purposes, Israeli law states that “dual-use” technology is classified as defence equipment.

Israeli law also requires companies exporting defence-related products to seek licenses for export and marketing when doing deals. The legal complaint said any officials who granted Cognyte licenses for Myanmar deals should be investigated. Reuters was unable to determine whether Cognyte obtained such licenses.

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Around the time of the 2020 deal, the political situation in Myanmar was tense with the military disputing the results of an election won by Suu Kyi.

Norway’s Telenor (TEL.OL), previously one of the biggest telecoms firms in Myanmar before withdrawing from the country last year, also said in a Dec. 3, 2020 briefing and statement that it was concerned about Myanmar authorities’ plans for a lawful intercept due to insufficient legal safeguards.

Nasdaq-listed Cognyte was spun off in February 2021 from Verint Systems Inc (VRNT.O), a pioneering giant in Israel’s cybersecurity industry.
Cognyte, which had $474 million in annual revenue for its last financial year, was also banned from Facebook in 2021. Facebook owner Meta Platforms Inc (META.O) said in a report Cognyte “enables managing fake accounts across social media platforms”.

Meta said its investigation identified Cognyte customers in a range of countries such as Kenya, Mexico and Indonesia and their targets included journalists and politicians. It did not identify the customers or the targets.

Meta did not respond to a request for further comment.

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Last month, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund dropped Cognyte from its portfolio, saying states said to be customers of its surveillance products and services “have been accused of extremely serious human rights violations”. The fund did not name any states.

Cognyte has not responded publicly to the claims made by Meta or Norway’s sovereign wealth fund.

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World’s first hydrogen-powered commercial ferry to run on San Francisco Bay for free ride

World’s first hydrogen-powered commercial ferry to run on San Francisco Bay for free ride

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World's first hydrogen-powered commercial ferry to run on San Francisco Bay for free ride

The world’s first hydrogen-powered commercial passenger ferry will start operating on San Francisco Bay as part of plans to phase out diesel-powered vessels and reduce planet-warming carbon emissions, California officials said Friday, demonstrating the ship.

The 70-foot (21-meter) catamaran called the MV Sea Change will transport up to 75 passengers along the waterfront between Pier 41 and the downtown San Francisco ferry terminal starting July 19, officials said. The service will be free for six months while it’s being run as part of a pilot program.

“The implications for this are huge because this isn’t its last stop,” said Jim Wunderman, chair of the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority, which runs commuter ferries across the bay.

“If we can operate this successfully, there are going to be more of these vessels in our fleet and in other folks’ fleets in the United States and we think in the world.”

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Sea Change can travel about 300 nautical miles and operate for 16 hours before it needs to refuel. The fuel cells produce electricity by combining oxygen and hydrogen in an electrochemical reaction that emits water as a byproduct. 

The technology could help clean up the shipping industry, which produces nearly 3% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, officials said. That’s less than from cars, trucks, rail or aviation but still a lot — and it’s rising.

Frank Wolak, president and CEO of the Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association, said the ferry is meaningful because it’s hard to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vessels.

“The real value of this is when you multiply out by the number of ferries operating around the world,” he said. “There’s great potential here. This is how you can start chipping away at the carbon intensity of your ports.”

Backers also hope hydrogen fuel cells could eventually power container ships.

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The International Maritime Organization, which regulates commercial shipping, wants to halve its greenhouse gas releases by midcentury.

As fossil fuel emissions continue warming Earth’s atmosphere, the Biden administration is turning to hydrogen as an energy source for vehicles, manufacturing and generating electricity.

It has been offering $8 billion to entice the nation’s industries, engineers and planners to figure out how to produce and deliver clean hydrogen.

Environmental groups say hydrogen presents its own pollution and climate risks. For now, the hydrogen that is produced globally each year, mainly for refineries and fertilizer manufacturing, is made using natural gas.

That process warms the planet rather than saving it. Indeed, a new study by researchers from Cornell and Stanford universities found that most hydrogen production emits carbon dioxide, which means that hydrogen-fueled transportation cannot yet be considered clean energy.

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Yet proponents of hydrogen-powered transportation say that in the long run, hydrogen production is destined to become more environmentally safe.

They envision a growing use of electricity from wind and solar energy, which can separate hydrogen and oxygen in water. As such renewable forms of energy gain broader use, hydrogen production should become a cleaner and less expensive process.

The Sea Change project was financed and managed by the investment firm SWITCH Maritime. The vessel was constructed at Bay Ship and Yacht in Alameda, California, and All-American Marine in Bellingham, Washington.

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Webb Telescope shows pair of intertwined galaxies glowing in infrared

Webb Telescope shows pair of intertwined galaxies glowing in infrared

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Webb Telescope shows pair of intertwined galaxies glowing in infrared

The Webb Space Telescope has captured a pair of intertwined galaxies glowing in the infrared.

The observatory operated by NASA and the European Space Agency photographed the two galaxies 326 million light-years away, surrounded by a blue haze of stars and gas.

A light-year is 5.8 trillion miles. The pictures, released Friday, marks the second anniversary of Webb’s science operations.

The neighboring galaxies, nicknamed Penguin and the Egg, have been tangled up for tens of millions of years, according to NASA. They’ll eventually merge into a single galaxy.

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The same interaction will happen to our own Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy in 4 billion years, the space agency said.

Considered the successor to the aging Hubble Space Telescope, Webb is the biggest and most powerful astronomical observatory ever launched.

It rocketed away in 2021 and underwent six months of commissioning, before its first official images were released in July 2022. 

It’s positioned 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth. “In just two years, Webb has transformed our view of the universe,” NASA’s Mark Clampin said in a statement.

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US senators call out Big Tech’s new approach to poaching talent, products from smaller AI startups

US senators call out Big Tech’s new approach to poaching talent, products from smaller AI startups

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US senators call out Big Tech's new approach to poaching talent, products from smaller AI startups

In the race to stay ahead in artificial intelligence, the biggest technology companies are swallowing up the talent and products of innovative AI startups without formally acquiring them.

Now three members of the U.S. Senate are calling for an investigation.

San Francisco-based Adept announced a deal late last month that will send its CEO and key employees to Amazon and give the e-commerce giant a license to Adept’s AI systems and datasets.

Some call it a “reverse acqui-hire.” Others call it poaching. Whatever it’s called, it’s alarming to some in Washington who see it as an attempt to bypass U.S. laws that protect against monopolies.

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“I’m very concerned about the massive consolidation that’s going on in AI,” U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, told The Associated Press.

“The technical lingo is ‘up and down the stack’. But, in plain English, a few companies control a major portion of the market, and just concentrate — rather than on innovation — trying to buy out everybody else’s talent.”

So-called “acqui-hires,” in which one company acquires another to absorb talent, have been common in the tech industry for decades, said Michael A. Cusumano, a business professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But what’s happening in the AI industry is a little different. 

“To acquire only some employees or the majority, but not all, license technology, leave the company functioning but not really competing, that’s a new twist,” Cusumano said.

A similar maneuver happened at the AI company Inflection in March when Microsoft hired its co-founder and CEO Mustafa Suleyman to head up Microsoft’s consumer AI business, along with Inflection’s chief scientist and several of its top engineers and researchers.

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That arrangement has already attracted some scrutiny from regulators, particularly in Europe. Wyden also wants U.S. regulators to investigate the Amazon-Adept deal.

He and fellow Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Peter Welch of Vermont sent a letter Friday urging antitrust enforcers at the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission that “sustained, pointed action is necessary to fight undue consolidation across the industry.”

“What is going on here is instead of buying startups outright, big tech companies are trying a new play,” Wyden said in an interview before sending the letter. ”They don’t want to formally acquire the companies, avoiding the antitrust scrutiny. I think that’s going to be the playbook until the FTC really starts digging into these deals.”

The DOJ and FTC said they received the senators’ letter but declined further comment.

President Joe Biden’s administration and lawmakers from both parties have championed stronger oversight of the tech industry in recent years, likely scaring off big acquisitions that might have sailed through in earlier eras.

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U.S. antitrust enforcers, for example, plan on investigating the roles Microsoft, Nvidia and OpenAI have played in the artificial intelligence boom, with the Department of Justice looking into chipmaker Nvidia and the Federal Trade Commission scrutinizing close business partners Microsoft and OpenAI.

Tech giants, including Microsoft, Amazon and Google, are trying to be conservative and not make too many acquisitions in the AI space, Cusumano said. “It seems clever. I would think, though, that they’re not fooling anybody,” he said.

For smaller AI startups, the problem is also that building AI systems is expensive, requiring costly computer chips, power-hungry data centers, huge troves of data to train upon and highly skilled computer scientists.

Adept, which aims to make AI software agents that help people with workplace tasks, said it was trying to do two things at once — build the foundational AI technology as well as the products for end users.

But continuing on that path “would’ve required spending significant attention on fundraising for our foundation models, rather than bringing to life our agent vision,” it said in a statement explaining the Amazon deal.

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“They may have made a decision that they have no real future and just don’t have deep enough pockets to compete in this space, so they probably prefer to be acquired outright,” Cusumano said. “But if Amazon is not willing or not able to do that, then this is kind of a second-best approach for them.”

Wyden has long taken an interest in technology, helping to write the 1996 law that helped set the ground rules for free speech on the internet. He said he generally favors a straightforward approach that encourages innovation, with guardrails as needed.

But in the AI industry, he said, “companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Google, either own major parts of the AI ecosystem or they have a leg up thanks to their massive resources.”

The letter asks enforcers to examine how tech giants are entrenching their AI dominance “through partnerships, equity deals, acquisitions, cloud computing credits, and other arrangements.”

John F. Coyle, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, said he believes that Amazon hiring Adept employees without buying the company is clearly a move to avoid antitrust problems. But that type of hiring isn’t a “reverse acqui-hire,” he said.

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Acqui-hires are typically face-saving moves that can be spun into success stories, Coyle said, and provide an alternative to liquidating a business. A smaller company can say it was sold to Amazon or Facebook parent Meta Platforms and spin it as a positive, for example, even if wasn’t the founders’ original plan.

“This isn’t an acqui-hire. This is a straight up poach,” Coyle said of Amazon and Adept.

This doesn’t just happen in the tech world, he said, calling the move “a version of a very old story.” In his class, Coyle said, he teaches students about a case from the 1950s involving an advertising agency in New York City. Some employees left to start a new business and poached roughly 100 others to come to work for them.

“There are innumerable instances where one company went and raided another to take all their employees,” Coyle said. “That existed before the acqui-hire, that is going to happen after the acqui-hire.”

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