Interview: Intelligence gathering in Hungary

History

BBJ interviewed Dr Péter Homoki (pictured), lawyer and chairman of the IT Law Committee of the Council of European Bars and Law Societies (CCBE), about government surveillance in Hungary.

BBJ: How does governmental surveillance look in practice?

Using specialized jargon I would call that secret intelligence. Interest in the means of governmental intelligence has been focusing on radio electronice intelligence, or more precisely mass governmental intelligence. What can the United States do with a budget like they have and what is today’s techonology capable of? In 2013, following the Snowden case, we thought that mass intelligence means that there is a center where all the emails sent around the world are checked based on certain keywords. But last year, we could hear rights organizations saying that intelligence involve a gratuitously wide selection of people. For example, for defining who is a terrorist and identifying their messages can only be done if a wide selection of people is under surveillance. It is not true that every single person is under surveillance, however not only terrorists are being monitored but also people and relations of terrorists who are sometimes possibly unsuspicious.

BBJ: Are there any social groups or certain professions that are under surveillance?

Unless we regard intelligence, terrorism and organized crime as a certain profession, I have to say that there is no discrimination. The most common aim in civilian surveillance is gathering secret information for fighting against and prevent crime. Sometimes such surveillance is done to operative activities for national security purposes. Unfortunately, in Hungary, unlike in Austria, there is no public report on what constitutes as the work of constitutional protection and what threats are there that Hungary needs to face. Although the Hungarian government’s national security strategy is public, it cannot substitute a report like in Austria. Is terrorism present in Hungary? If yes who are involved? Far rightist movements, animal protection movements or religious fanatics?

BBJ: Is governmental surveillance present in Hungary?

These days, fighting against crime is impossible to be done without massive intelligence work. It is difficult to determine the size of it, though I am sure that it involves ten thousands a year.

BBJ: Is it possible that the Hungarian government uses surveillance? If yes, who are monitored and why?

I would not say that the Hungarian government uses it, although intelligence services can receive commands from the government through the ministers, but it is not a custom. The rights of surveillance are included in laws. In Hungary there are nine entities that are eligible for surveillance. It is important to emphasize that this is not mass surveillance that would go against the constitutional laws, but with judicial authorization some communication channels (like emails) can be checked, just as contents and information stored at a computer. Any such surveillance is documented according to strict standards to eliminate the possibilities for misuse.

BBJ: In the digital world we can be watched without even noticing. How can we protect ourselves?

Here we need to distinguish what counts as lawful and unlawful surveillance according to the Hungarian laws. The surveillance of the Hungarian police or national securities is against the law and expensive, thus it poses no threat to individuals. However, what the Hungarian police is capable of, unfortunately some corporations are also capable of, who might monitor us unlawfully. We can protect ourselves if we identify who pose threats to our personal data. The greatest threat is posed by cyber criminals, whose interest in taking over the control of our devices is financial. They do it for using our resources for their own benefits: like sending us advertisement, which is quite harmless, or steal our bank accounts or bank card details. The best we can do is using up-to-date firewalls or anti-virus programs. It can also help if we know our devices well and use them accordingly.

BBJ: Following the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron urged the idea of banning instant messaging apps because they use an encryption process that makes it impossible for security services to monitor. Is it possible that our text messages and emails are being read in Hungary?

Our text messages (SMS) are documented by service providers, as they are bound by law to keep a history. In case of a trial, the court can ask to see those messages and this is lawful. In case of emails, the same rule applies, service providers, both telecommunication companies or mail services, can be required by judicial command to unveil the history of our emails.

David Cameron made his announcement driven by the growing terrorist threats of the past few years. On the one hand, service providers are trying to (re)gain the trust of users following the Snowden case. On the other hand the threat of terrorism makes it important to prevent attacks happening. Unfortunately few people see that intelligence, which is trying to prevent terrorist attacks from happening, is based on communication that is being encrypted nowadays.

BBJ: It is suggested that the Hungarian government uses the FinFisher spying program. Is it possible that the Hungarian government uses this program?

Some reports suggest that FinFisher, a spyware program that is installed to computers to save every keystroke, was ordered by Hungarian government officials. Thus, it can be speculated that some Hungarian intelligence entity/entities used or tested the program. I believe that in this case our concern is not that the program is being used, but the fact that it should be done in line with the constitutional regulations.

BBJ: Is there anything you would like to add?

The importance of transparency in case of surveillance is important.

Lawyer communities were affected sensitively when international press reported that in the legal dispute preceding WTO, the U.S. government helped Australia to monitor the communication between a Chicago-based lawfirm and the Indonesian government. The reaction was the same when the communication between lawyers and their clients who were suing U.K. national security services was monitored, despite the fact that they were not accused with criminal activities.

We do not know details, yet it is clear that the situation is very sensitive: Lawyers are often required to defend their clients against their own government. And in cases like this, it worrisome, that communication between the lawyer and client was monitored due to “national security purposes”.

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