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Hungarian journalists, activist will sue NSO Group after alleged hacking

Rights group in Hungary says it’s taking legal action against Hungarian state and Israeli spyware company ‘to expose the practice of unlawful secret surveillance’

This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israel's NSO Group which features 'Pegasus' spyware, on display in Paris, on July 21, 2021. (Joel Saget/AFP)
This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israel's NSO Group which features 'Pegasus' spyware, on display in Paris, on July 21, 2021. (Joel Saget/AFP)

Several journalists and two other people in Hungary allegedly targeted with spyware made by the NSO Group will pursue legal action against the Hungarian state and the Israeli cyber tech firm, the rights group representing them announced Friday.

According to an investigation by a global media consortium published last year, NSO Group’s Pegasus software was used in Hungary to infiltrate the digital devices of a range of targets, including at least 10 lawyers, one opposition politician and several government-critical journalists.

Subsequent investigations by Hungarian investigative journalists suggested that at least two publishers of government-critical media as well as a former state secretary were also targeted with the software.

In November, a senior official in Hungary’s ruling party acknowledged the government used Pegasus, but insisted it did so legally and with proper supervision.

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) said it would file both domestic and foreign lawsuits on behalf of four journalists, a student activist and a sixth person who asked to remain anonymous.

“The organization aims to expose the practice of unlawful secret surveillance, to have international fora declare that the Hungarian regulation of secret information gathering violates fundamental rights and to prevent politically motivated abuses,” HCLU said in a statement on its website.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during a joint press conference in Budapest, Hungary, on October 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Laszlo Balogh, File)

The group added that it was taking “all possible legal means” in Hungary, including by filing complaints with ministers who oversee the secret services, filing freedom of information requests and appealing to courts.

The HCLU and Israeli civil rights attorney Eitay Mack will also ask Israel to open a criminal case against the NSO Group and Israeli officials who okayed the spyware sale to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government.

“They should have known from the beginning the deteriorating situation in Hungary, and that targeting the press is a main activity of the Orban regime,” Mack told the Guardian.

Mack added that he wants the NSO Group and those who authorized the export of Pegasus to Hungary to be charged under wiretapping and privacy laws.

NSO Group, which has insisted that its software was intended for use only in fighting terrorism and other crimes, did not comment on the HCLU announcement.

In this Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021, file photo, a logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Pegasus is considered one of the most powerful cyber-surveillance tools available on the market, giving operators the ability to effectively take full control of a target’s phone, download all data from the device, or activate its camera or microphone without the user knowing.

NSO Group has been involved in numerous scandals in recent years and has faced a torrent of international criticism over allegations it helps governments, including dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, spy on dissidents and rights activists. In November, the US Department of Commerce blacklisted NSO Group, adding it to the list of foreign companies that engage in malicious cyber activities.

Last week, reports by the Calcalist business daily said Israel Police had used NSO Group spyware to track Israeli civilians, including activists and mayors, without any judicial oversight.

The allegations sparked outrage from the public and lawmakers, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit launched an investigation. Police have not denied using NSO Group technology, but said they did not break any laws.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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