Some governments, including that of Viktor Orbán, are allegedly employing one of the most powerful surveillance tools ever created to silence political opposition. Pegasus, a software created by Israeli company NSO Group, can break into billions of phones around the world, allowing practically full surveillance of targets without them even clicking on a suspicious link. One would consider it a violation of rights if a government were to use the tool on innocent citizens, but according to the investigation of the Pegasus project, Fidesz is using the software to spy on independent Hungarian journalists and political opponents.
It sounds like something from a Jason Bourne film, but the Orbán government can be found in the recently uncovered list of countries accused of using the spyware to bug phones and steal information.
What is Pegasus and Why is it Dangerous?
While every experienced internet-user knows that suspicious links and emails need to be avoided at all costs since they can contain malware, NSO’s Pegasus does not require such bait. The software uses so-called “zero-click” attacks to infiltrate any phone running on iOS or Android platforms.
These zero-click attacks exploit flaws or bugs in the operating systems, called “zero-day” vulnerabilities, in order to enter a phone without any interaction from its owner.
While these infiltrations may be done with the traditional suspicious link tactic, they can also be achieved through the exploitation of installed apps. For example, in 2019 WhatsApp shared that more than 1,400 users had been hacked after Pegasus had located one of the app’s zero-day vulnerabilities.
If neither the phishing nor the zero-click attacks work, Pegasus can be installed over a wireless transceiver near the target, and according to an NSO brochure, it can even be manually installed by an agent who steals their target’s phone.
Once a phone has been hacked, its owner can say goodbye to their privacy. Not only messages, emails, photos and videos, location data, contacts, and search history can be accessed, but the attacker can turn on the phone’s microphone and camera, and calls can be recorded.
Gov’ts Misusing Spyware Intended for Criminals?
The Pegasus project is a collaborative investigation run by 17 news outlets, among them Hungarian investigative and whistleblower platform Direkt36. With 80 journalists at their disposal, and with the French nonprofit Forbidden Stories at their head, the team has discovered that multiple national governments are actively using Pegasus to target political opponents, primarily journalists, politicians, and businessmen.
According to the Forbidden Stories article, 50 thousand phone numbers located by NSO’s clients for surveillance since 2016 were accessed by the Pegasus project team and Amnesty International. NSO claims that it only provides its software to national governments and national organizations, with the purpose of tracking down terrorists and the most dangerous of criminals.
Some of the client countries, having gathered thousands of phone numbers, include Azerbaijan (more than 1,000), Bahrein (nearly 3,000), the United Arab Emirates (more than 10,000), India (more than 2,000), Mexico (more than 15,000), Morocco (more than 10,000), and Saudi Arabia (more than 800). There is an EU nation on the list which will stand out to many readers, having allegedly targeted 300 phones: Hungary.
Fidesz Allegedly Watching Independent Hungarian Journalists
Government-critical news portal Telex listed, based on the findings of the Pegasus project, that notable examples from the 300 Hungarian targets include:
- Four journalists; two employees of investigative outlet Direkt36, a former journalist of liberal weekly Hvg.hu, as well as a fourth journalist who has chosen to remain anonymous,
- A Hungarian photographer who collaborated with an American journalist covering the Russian-led International Investment Bank’s affairs in Budapest,
- Zoltán Varga, owner of Central Media Group Plc., who has allegedly faced multiple attacks from government circles, as well as other businessmen who joined Varga in a dinner meeting in 2018. Among these visitors was Attila Chikán, an economics professor and former Minister of the Economy in the first Orbán government, known forbecoming very critical of the Fidesz leader, whose phone number was also found on the list,
- The son of former oligarch Lajos Simicska and a close confidante of Simicska. Simicska initiated an open media campaign against the government during the elections of 2018,
- One of Central European University’s international students, Adrien Beaudeuin, who was arrested in 2018 for taking part in an antigovernmental protest.
There are of course others, Telex explains, including a prestigious lawyer and an opposition mayor. It must be emphasized that there is no clear proof that the Orbán government employed the software. However, the accusations against Fidesz are very strong, especially based on NSO’s assertion that it only offers its services to national authorities.
The Hungarian government asserts that its hands are clean of any kind of illegal data collection, a response which former CIA computer intelligence consultant Edward Snowden considers “the most incriminating response.”
Snowden Discredits Truth of Hungarian Gov’t Statement
According to The Guardian, a Hungarian government spokesperson responded to the accusations of surveillance, saying that “we are not aware of any alleged data collection claimed by the request,”
Hungary is a democratic state governed by the rule of law, and as such, when it comes to any individual it has always acted and continues to act in accordance with the law in force. In Hungary, state bodies authorised to use covert instruments are regularly monitored by governmental and non-governmental institutions.”
Edward Snowden, the controversial former CIA agent known for leaking sensitive information about the National Security Agency of the United States in 2013, took to twitter to describe the response as “the most incriminating” he has ever seen. “Whenever I’m “not aware” of whether I did something or not, I demand to know if foreign spies tipped you off about it,” he wrote.
Whether the Hungarian government is involved in the scandal or not is yet to be confirmed, but developments around the issue, both from the government side and the Pegasus project, will surely unfold over the coming days.
Featured photo by Szilárd Koszticsák/MTI