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Spyware used to monitor investigative journalists in Hungary

Government

Photo by Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock.com

Pegasus, a spyware program for hacking smartphones developed by Israeli company NSO, was deployed against Hungarian targets including investigative journalists and media company owners, Direkt36 reports, citing the results of a collaborative investigation project led by French nonprofit journalism organization Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International.

Direkt36 says that the investigation also found some evidence suggesting that Hungarian state bodies are behind the surveillance.

The international investigation, named "Pegasus Project", involving a total of 17 newspapers including the Washington Post, the Guardian, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit, and Le Monde gained access to a database of NSO clients' activities. The database contains more than 50,000 phone numbers that the project's research shows have been targeted by NSO clients for surveillance since 2016 in more than 50 countries around the world, according to Telex.hu.

The fact that a phone number appears in the database does not necessarily mean that Pegasus has been used against the targets, but in many cases, subsequent examination of the phones has shown that they have indeed been hacked. 

According to the findings, the targets included four journalists, including two Direkt36 staff members, Szabolcs Panyi and András Szabó, whose phones were subsequently found to have been hacked with NSO software. Direkt36 is the Hungarian partner of the "Pegasus Project".

Dávid Dercsényi, a former journalist for hvg.hu was also a target, as well as a fourth journalist who asked not to be named.

Other targets included a Hungarian photographer who worked with an American journalist who was covering the International Investment Bank's move to Budapest, Central Media Group owner Zoltán Varga and several other businessmen who attended a public affairs dinner at Varga's house in 2018. Subsequent investigations have confirmed that at least one guest's phone was certainly hacked with NSO's software.

The son of former oligarch Lajos Simicska was also targeted before the 2018 elections, when Simicska ran a media empire and openly attacked the government. According to Direkt36, Simicska himself did not use a smartphone at the time.

Adrien Beauduin, a foreign student at CEU who was detained by Hungarian authorities during an anti-government protest in 2018 was also targeted.

According to a report by The Guardian, Pegasus allows the attacker to view all content on a phone, such as messages from apps with end-to-end encryption, photographs, and GPS location data.

The program can also turn the infected device into an audio or video recorder.

According to The Washington Post, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s office gave the following response to questions from reporters:
"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 authorized to use covert instruments are regularly monitored by governmental and non-governmental institutions."
"Have you asked the same questions of the governments of the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Germany, or France? In the case you have, how long did it take for them to reply and how did they respond? Was there any intelligence service to help you formulate the questions?"

 

NSO said it could not disclose the identity of its customers. A former NSO employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal company arrangements, confirmed the Hungarian government was a client, The Washington Post notes.

 

Edward Snowden, a former computer intelligence consultant who leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013 when he was an employee and subcontractor for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), tweeted:
 "Hungary gave the most incriminating response I've ever seen to a request for comment on the #Pegasus surveillance scandal. I mean, whenever I'm 'not aware' of whether I did something or not, I demand to know if foreign spies tipped you off about it."

 

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