Hungary’s spyware scandal is a crisis for Europe

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Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, was already seen as a boogeyman stalking the West. In nearly a dozen years in power, he has transformed his nation’s fledgling liberal democracy into a thorn in the side of the European Union. Critics accuse Orban of presiding over a “post-communist mafia state,” where the media is dominated by his allies, the courts are stacked with his loyalists, the electoral map gerrymandered in favor of his right-wing Fidesz party and a network of kleptocratic patronage traces its way back to the prime minister.

Then there’s his politics: Orban styles himself as the continent’s great illiberal and grandstands ceaselessly over the perceived evils of immigration, multiculturalism, feminism and European integration. He has at various times been accused of peddling anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and anti-Roma sentiment. A new Hungarian anti-LGBTQ law so incensed Orban’s European counterparts that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte declared at a recent meeting of E.U. leaders that Hungary should leave the bloc if it can’t respect gay rights. As is his wont, Orban scoffed at the moral scolding, decrying Rutte’s “colonial approach.”

The picture grew all the more murky in the wake of the sprawling revelations of the Pegasus Project. The Washington Post along with 16 other media partners around the world were able to uncover how military-grade spyware made by the NSO Group, an Israeli firm, was used to track numerous dissidents, journalists, human rights activists and influential politicians and businesspeople in more than 50 countries. (NSO said it has “no insight” into clients’ intelligence activities and later pledged to investigate potential cases of human rights abuses.)

Of the 37 smartphones that investigative reporters determined were targeted by the Pegasus spyware — which functions invisibly and can be used for myriad purposes, including reading the target’s messages and emails, tracking their movements, secretly turning on the phone’s camera and eavesdropping on their calls — at least five belonged to individuals in Hungary. Moreover, more than 300 Hungarian phone numbers appeared on a list of about 50,000 smartphone numbers that included some selected for surveillance using Pegasus, the technology developed by NSO and licensed to foreign governments.

Hungary finds itself in notable company. The kingdom of Morocco and the world’s largest democracy in India are among those now under scrutiny for seemingly using this technology on journalists. (Both countries have said all surveillance is in compliance with their respective laws.) For Budapest, the situation may lead to another showdown with Brussels, as its apparent use of these surveillance methods make “a mockery of the far-reaching digital privacy protections the European Union has enacted,” my colleagues wrote.

“Although the Hungarian numbers represent a small portion of the total, they stand out because Hungary is a member of the European Union, where privacy is supposed to be a fundamental right and core societal value, and where safeguards for journalists, opposition politicians and lawyers are theoretically strong,” they explained. “But in Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and elsewhere in Europe, some of those guarantees are being rolled back — and in Budapest, that rollback has been accompanied by the use of an unusually powerful spying tool.”

The Hungarian targets include prominent independent journalists Szabolcs Panyi and Andras Szabo. “I’m being treated as a threat, like a Russian spy or a terrorist or a mobster,” said Panyi, a partner on the investigation and a dogged reporter known for his bold coverage of Orban’s rule. Forensic examination of his phone revealed that it had been compromised multiple times by Pegasus spyware.

Hungary’s foreign minister denied the use of this technology in surveilling civilians. At a news conference Monday, Hungary’s justice minister Judit Varga was a bit more evasive. “Hungary is a state governed by the rule of law and, like any decent state, in the 21st century it has the technical means to carry out its national security tasks,” she told reporters. “It would be a serious problem if we did not have these tools, but they are used in a lawful manner.”

Orban’s opponents in parliament have demanded an inquiry into the spyware scandal. Given that they are considerably outnumbered by Orban’s allies, they may not have the numbers to force domestic action. Calls for investigations are also growing further to the west. Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister and current member of the European parliament, called for a full inquiry in the continental body. “The EU has a dictatorship growing inside of it,” he tweeted. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that if the hacking allegations were true, they would be “completely unacceptable.”

The dilemma that Hungary represents for the European Union is not new. Orban’s liberal critics in the European Parliament want to see tougher action, including the suspension of E.U. funds to Hungary over “breaches in the rule of law.” So far, the bloc’s governance mechanisms have been unable to arrest Hungary’s democratic backsliding under Orban. On Tuesday, the European Commission is slated to release a major report on the rule of law on the continent, but analysts argue its assessments may not be matched by meaningful punitive action.

Part of the problem is that Orban is not alone. E.U. officials are locked in a tussle with Poland’s right-wing government, whose constitutional tribunal ruled last week that Warsaw did not need to comply with rulings from the European Union’s top court. The court has tried to halt the Polish government’s assaults on judicial independence. As in Hungary’s case, many critics call for stiff consequences. “If Poland’s government does not like the obligations of being in the EU, then it should prepare to leave,” noted a Financial Times editorial. “Most Poles would recoil at the idea, knowing that membership has underpinned the country’s success. But their government’s actions are going to cost them one way or another.”

Absent the ability to truly censure governments like those in Hungary and Poland, the E.U.’s liberals may have to pin their hopes on the ballot box. Next year’s parliamentary election may prove to be Orban’s stiffest challenge yet as the country’s splintered opposition attempts to forge a united front. “It might be the last chance,” Gergely Karacsony, the mayor of Budapest and one of Orban’s main challengers, recently told the Atlantic. “If we lose now, that would have major consequences.”

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