From the beginning of 2021 until news broke out of the Pegasus case, Justice Minister Judit Varga gave permission for 928 covert information gathering operations, almost as many as the total amount allowed in 2015. This year is projected to be the one where the most signatures are given out, with 5 requests being accepted a day, hvg.hu reported based on the information provided to them from the Ministry. As more information is shared around the spyware case, it is becoming clearer that the Hungarian government can conduct intelligence gathering operations under loose restrictions.
Last year more than 1,285 information gathering requests were authorized, 1,340 in 2019, 1,282 in 2018, 1,256 in 2017, 1,151 in 2016, and 1,038 in 2015. Varga is estimated to authorize 1,700 requests by the end of 2021.
After the breakout of the news regarding Hungary’s use of Israeli NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, the Minister of Justice asserted that she does not sign the requests, and that the action is instead performed by her state secretary, Pál Völner. These authorizations are not just related to Pegasus, they are related to all of Hungary’s intelligence gathering.
Former Secret Agent Says Surveillance Info Risks National Security
In an opinion piece on pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet, a former officer in the one party system’s III/I Directorate of the Interior Ministry, László Földi, who continued his national security career even after the regime change, questions why a journalist would create “an article risking the nation’s security.” Földi says the thousands of authorizations granted by the Ministry of Justice do not need to be justified, since they are “state secrets.”
Földi argues that the statistics shared already infringe on Hungary’s national security and suggested that the journalists seeking information on the Pegasus scandal are a part of a larger attack on the Orbán government. “In the world of secrets, a fragment of information can mean the missing chain link,” he said, suggesting that the exposed statistics put Hungarian intelligence in a vulnerable position.
However, it is important to point out, that while information shared by journalists can potentially infringe on national security, it is of public interest to look into potential issues of corruption and innocent people’s rights to privacy.
Many of the names on Direkt36’s list of targets do not appear to be enemies of the state, but rather political rivals of Fidesz, for example, the conservative mayor of Gödöllő, György Gémesi, or Professor Emeritus of Corvinus University, Full Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and former Minister of Economy Attila Chikán.
Gov’t Given Leeway on Questions of “National Security”
Hungarian law asserts that covert intelligence gathering is allowed when it meets the interests of the tasks set out by national security agencies. The legislative body permitting the action depends on the issue.
A Parliamentary informant of 24.hu stated that “if someone in a room decides that surveillance is warranted, then they begin the operation. If not, then they do not.” If the subject falls under criminality, then the justice department can sign off on the operation.
Issues of national security are given a much broader scope of authorization, since they do not require even a suspicion of criminal activity, the informant explains. In these cases, it is simply up to officials to decide whether the operation is warranted.
The European Court of Human Rights announced five years ago that systems which allow state ministers to authorize covert intelligence gathering infringe on human rights. Regardless, the Hungarian government continues to operate in this manner.
24.hu says that the list of 300 telephone numbers provided by Direkt36 likely belongs to the category of the latter, since there is no proof that any of the individuals in question would be involved in criminal activity.
Head of Security Committee Says Regulation of Security too Broad
Jobbik’s János Stummer, the president of the National Security Committee, argues that the regulation on allowing surveillance is much too permissive, and that allowing surveillance in the protection of national sovereignty is too broadly interpretable.
If a gathering of friends can be watched because of the “crime” that their political stance does not fit in with the government’s political stance, then the regulation is too soft.”
Máté Dániel Szabó, the Technical Director of the Society for Freedoms civil organization, explained that, unlike in Western Europe, the state is not required to inform their targets of surveillance if they did not find any kind of problem or danger in their actions. This means that a government body can gather covert information on an innocent person without them ever finding out.
People who want Accountability Face a Mountain of Bureaucracy
Hungarian legal procedures do not give innocent individuals the tools they need to challenge the government if an illegal surveillance operation has been conducted against them. Szabó explained that if someone believes or knows they were spied on, they can turn to the Minister supervising the National Security Service. In every case, he says, the response will be that “illegal surveillance,” was not conducted against the individual.
Second, they can turn to the National Security Committee for an investigation, but the Committee has not supported the initiation of any related investigations to this day, despite requests being made.
The third step requires the targeted individual to have proof of their surveillance, they need to give that proof to the body responsible for it, and if the sharing of such information on the part of the governing body does not infringe on public interest, they can discuss it with the individual. Even here, however, Szabó says there are plenty of loopholes and issues that allow officials to avoid giving clear answers.
Not only is the process gruelingly time consuming, but it stops Hungarian citizens from calling the government to account.
There is a need for the government to gather intelligence quickly and effectively on issues of national security, but under the premise of responsible government these actions should target those who deserve it: potential terrorists, undisclosed foreign agents, and criminals.
If the government did in fact gather intelligence on the people found on Direkt36’s list, then proof of their infringements on national security should be made clear.
Featured photo illustration by Zsolt Szigetváry/MTI