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Secrecy Surrounds Hungary’s Pegasus as Investigations Hit Roadblocks

Tamás Vaski 2021.08.06.

Aside from the Olympics, Hungary’s Pegasus scandal has dominated online Hungarian political media for the past three weeks. Despite the uproar by opposition politicians and continuous attempts by independent reporters to paint a clearer picture, the government is practically silent. While other EU nations, such as France and Germany, initiated immediate investigations into the scandal, the Hungarian government is dismissing the issue and boycotting investigations. In light of the controversy, centrist liberal party Momentum is calling for the National Election Office for the sake of determining the public’s opinion.

Despite the obstacles they face, investigations continue into the Pegasus scandal. The most recent discovery was the addition of another individual on the list of people who were allegedly watched by the Hungarian government through the spyware.

Another Phone Number on the Pegasus List

A further look into the scandal by investigative news outlet Direkt36 revealed that the government had been spying on a journalist covering corruption in Hungary from April to November 2019. A technical analysis of Brigitta Csikász’s phone revealed traces of the spyware.

Direkt36: Former State Secretary of Orbán Gov't Also on Pegasus Spyware's List of Targets
Direkt36: Former State Secretary of Orbán Gov't Also on Pegasus Spyware's List of Targets

At that time, Attila Aszódi was responsible for the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant and he had a conflict with his minister, because Aszódi opposed the hastened construction.Continue reading

During the time of her surveillance, Telex reports, Csikász had been covering the European Anti-Fraud Office’s (OLAF) proceedings to Hungary on infringements regarding funding mechanisms. Hungarian authorities chose not to look into the issues.

Former Members of Parliament Call for Accountability

According to former president of right wing Jobbik, Gábor Vona, Pegasus is just the tip of the iceberg. Vona said in an interview with 168 that he believes the Orbán Administration is using much stronger and much more advanced software for surveillance by now.

Technological development is so fast that if the existence of a device is revealed, that means that that given device has likely become obsolete. Even now it is more likely that we are talking about the past rather than the present.”

Liberal politician and former member of parliament József Gulyás confirmed the belief that has been on many people’s lips: this is an international scandal, which has a national scandal branching into Hungary.

The politician brought up that there are clear distinctions between international and Hungarian responses to the issue. France initiated an investigation against Morocco, which had allegedly targeted French officials, while Germany began internal investigations once it was revealed that the United States’ National Security Agency was gathering intelligence on Angela Merkel.

Misuse of Pegasus Spyware in Many Countries Causes Uproar Around the World
Misuse of Pegasus Spyware in Many Countries Causes Uproar Around the World

Even the presidents of France and the European Council are on the list of targeted phone numbers.Continue reading

Hungary, which, he brings up, has been condemned by many EU officials for allegedly spying on its own citizens, did not immediately initiate such investigations.

Pegasus Investigation Continuously Faces Road Blocks

Tamás Harangozó, Ágnes Vádai, and László Lukács, the opposition members of the Defense and Law Enforcement Committee, wish to question both Hungary’s Counter Terrorism Centre (TEK) director-general and Minister of the Interior Sándor Pintér. Like other opposition representatives, they want a clear answer as to whether the government used the software.

Data Protection Authority Opens Probe into Pegasus Spyware Allegations
Data Protection Authority Opens Probe into Pegasus Spyware Allegations

The investigation is only beginning now because the head of the office was on vacation.Continue reading

The Fidesz members of another investigative committee, the National Security Committee, have already boycotted a meeting which would have obligated Minister Pintér to speak on the issue.

Minister Pintér declared to journalists prior to a government meeting at the Court Theater of Buda that he is only willing to speak on the issue to the National Security Committee.

Prosecutor's Office Launches Investigation Into Pegasus Spyware Case
Prosecutor's Office Launches Investigation Into Pegasus Spyware Case

The investigation is aimed at ascertaining whether criminal activities have been committed.Continue reading

The minister also warned reporters that by speaking on the scandal he would be committing a legal offense, since he would be sharing a state secret. Thus, the RTL journalist to whom he gave the response would have committed an offense as well by trying to gather information on state secrets. “Let’s look away from this question, I think you should also consider whether you are going to share this [footage],” he concluded to reporters.

FM Szijjártó: Nothing Wrong with Buying Spyware from Abroad

Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó told Portfolio that “there is nothing surprising” about Hungary purchasing specialized spyware from abroad.

The secret service of every country uses specialized software. While large countries likely develop their own, smaller countries access them through procurement. Thus, there is nothing surprising about Hungary purchasing something like this abroad.”

Szijjártó said that he has no knowledge of Hungary using the software.

Momentum wants Pegasus referendum

Meanwhile, Momentum has submitted five questions to Hungary’s National Election Office on the basis that “the government barged into people’s private lives,” a member of the party’s presidential board, Miklós Hajnal said. The centrist liberal opposition prty wants to hold a referendum regarding the Pegasus scandal, and while the language of government officials hints at their possession of the device, investigations are hitting roadblocks.

According to Hajnal, Hungary’s loose laws around covert surveillance are the reason why Justice Minister Judit Varga can say that she acted with complete legality on the issue of the spyware known as Pegasus. To bring the opinions of the public into the equation, Momentum has submitted five questions they are calling for the nation to ask its citizens.

Journalists and Lawyers Call for Gov’t Transparency on Pegasus Scandal
Journalists and Lawyers Call for Gov’t Transparency on Pegasus Scandal

The Prosecutor's Office has received at least two denuncations, one of them reporting the Hungarian government over a “suspicion of misconduct committed in breach of official duty.”Continue reading

Momentum’s questions are as follows:

  • Do you agree that the national security service should only be allowed to gather covert intelligence with the permission of a judge?
  • Do you agree that covert information gathering for the purpose of national security should only happen if tied to a direct goal, and only in accordance with the upholding of legal conditions?
  • Do you agree that through covert surveillance, confessed secrets, protective secrets, and human dignity should not be infringed upon?
  • Do you agree that if, in the process of covert surveillance, the national security service operates without the permission of a judge, the targeted individual should automatically be informed about the unauthorized action?
  • Do you agree that the National Assembly should obligate the department responsible for national security to share information on the “Pegasus surveillance scandal” through an investigation? Should it obligate the Minister of Justice to declassify information on legal permissions provided regarding the issue?

In the featured photo illustration: Interior Minister Sándor Pintér. Photo by MTI/EPA/Martin Divisek