When Szabolcs Panyi learns, in the spring of 2021, that the Pegasus spyware is installed on his smartphone, the Hungarian investigative journalist knows that it is not just a matter of eavesdropping. The software does more than intercept phone calls: it can access all data on a smartphone, and can even turn on the microphone and camera without being noticed.
“I felt like they broke into my apartment and my office, bugged everything, put hidden cameras everywhere and even followed me into the shower,” he said.
Panyi is editor-in-chief of Budapest-based online investigative outlet Direkt36. He is one of dozens of people who have been monitored – illegally – by the Hungarian state using the Pegasus spyware. His intended targets are major criminals or terrorists, and these people were neither. They were being watched because their research or political activities meant they were an inconvenience or threat to the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The Pegasus scandal became more widely known in July 2021, when a network of journalists published information about leaked lists of around 50,000 phone numbers that had been targeted and attacked using Israeli spyware. Some 300 of the targets were based in Hungary, and they included the phones of journalists, lawyers, political activists, entrepreneurs – even a former minister.
Hungarian investigative journalist Szabolcs Panyi of online portal Direkt36 was targeted using Pegasus
Better controls over intelligence services
Now, more than six months after the case came to light, six of those targeted in Hungary, including Panyi, are taking legal action. This is the first legal action brought by Pegasus victims against an EU state. They will sue in Hungary through the courts and with the NAIH, the country’s data protection authority, as well as in Israel with the attorney general.
The six are represented by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU—TASZ in Hungarian), one of Hungary’s leading civil rights organizations, and Israeli lawyer Eitay Mack. On January 28, the HCLU made a first public announcement to this effect in Budapest, and activated a dedicated page on its website.
“On the one hand, we want data subjects to be informed of the information and data intelligence services have about them,” HCLU lawyer Adam Remport, who is coordinating the initiative, told DW. “On the other hand, we want to act against abusive surveillance in general, and to achieve better and independent checks on the intelligence services in Hungary.”
This is also important for Panyi, in addition to the question of exactly what data was siphoned from his phone. “The current regulations are so elastic and defined so broadly that in Hungary anyone can be monitored,” he told DW.
Software sales continued despite concerns
In Israel, attorney Eitay Mack will file a lawsuit with the country’s attorney general against the software’s maker, a private tech company called NSO Group, and Israel’s Defense Ministry, which must approve sales of the software. to other countries. Mack has already made several attempts to sue Pegasus – due to the way the software was used in Mexico, among other things – so far, however, without success.
But Mack won’t give up. “Pegasus was sold to the Hungarian state amid considerable concerns about abuse of the rule of law in Hungary,” Mack told DW. “That’s why I want to try to sue the Israeli Ministry of Defense for, among other things, failing to prevent a crime, as well as violating the right to privacy.”
Pegasus in Poland
When the Pegasus case came to light, Hungary was believed to be the only EU member state where a government had used the spyware against critics. Then, at the end of 2021, it emerged that the Polish government, led by the ruling Law and Justice party, had done the same. In both countries, governments have indirectly acknowledged having authorized the use of Pegasus spyware against individuals.
In Hungary, a senior MP and politician from Orban’s right-wing populist Fidesz party inadvertently confirmed to reporters in November 2021 that the country’s Interior Ministry had bought Pegasus, a statement that the Hungarian prosecutor’s office declared shortly afterwards was “non-compliant”. with the facts.”
There is no doubt, however, that Orban and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who have been personal friends for many years, likely agreed to the Pegasus deal during a meeting in Budapest in July 2017.
Netanyahu, then Israeli Prime Minister, visited his Hungarian counterpart, Orban, in Budapest in July 2017
Common enemy: George Soros
Orban and Netanyahu have a common enemy: US billionaire stockbroker George Soros, who is of Hungarian Jewish descent, and uses his wealth to promote civil society activities. The two politicians have also helped each other on numerous occasions: Hungary repeatedly blocked EU resolutions that criticized Israel, while Netanyahu attested that the Orban government was exemplary in the fight against anti-Semitism – despite several government campaigns against Soros in Hungary with strong anti-Semitic overtones.
“Israel paid a high price for Hungary’s support: it covered up the Orban government’s anti-Semitism,” said Eitay Mack. The lawyer is convinced that the Pegasus spyware was also part of the cooperation between Orban and Netanyahu. “This spyware is a tool of Israeli diplomacy.”
A degree of paranoia
Mack and Hungarian lawyer Adam Remport are aware that proceedings in their respective countries can take years. Mack said that, nonetheless, he will not relent in his efforts to ensure that Israel is held accountable for exporting weapons, including cyber weapons such as Pegasus, to autocratic countries. And Remport stressed that, if necessary, the HCLU will take matters to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. “A decision from there would have pan-European significance,” he said.
Meanwhile, Panyi and his colleagues at investigative portal Direkt36 have uncovered new cases of Pegasus spyware abuse in Hungary in recent months. And it is not only the critics of the Orban regime who are targeted.
At the end of December, for example, Direkt36 published information showing that Pegasus had been used to target phones belonging to the bodyguards of Hungarian President Janos Ader, one of Orban’s longtime close allies. “When you see that even Orban’s relatives are being spied on now,” Panyi said, “you can’t help but see that there is a certain paranoia at work, even at the heart of the regime.”
This article has been translated from German