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Hungary admits buying Israeli-made NSO spyware allegedly used against opposition

Senior official in governing party confirms Interior Ministry purchased Pegasus malware tool from Israeli firm, but insists it was used legally and under proper supervision

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on July 19, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on July 19, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — A senior official in Hungary’s governing party acknowledged for the first time on Thursday that the government purchased a powerful spyware tool, which was allegedly used to target journalists, businesspeople and an opposition politician.

Lajos Kosa, chairman of parliament’s Committee on Defense and Law Enforcement, confirmed to journalists following a closed committee session that Hungary’s Interior Ministry had bought the military-grade spyware Pegasus, produced by Israel-based NSO Group.

It was the first time a Hungarian official openly acknowledged the government’s use of the malware, which infiltrates phones to collect personal and location data and can surreptitiously control the phone’s microphones and cameras.

An investigation by a global media consortium published in July said that Pegasus 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 journalism outlet Direkt36 have suggested that at least two publishers of government-critical media as well as a former state secretary were also targeted with the software.

Kosa, a vice-president of Hungary’s governing Fidesz party, insisted that Hungary’s security services and Interior Ministry had acted legally in every case of surveillance, receiving permission either from courts or the Ministry of Justice.

A woman checks the website of Israel-made Pegasus spyware at an office in the Cypriot capital Nicosia on July 21, 2021. (Mario Goldman/AFP)

But opposition lawmakers have demanded an inquiry into the government’s use of Pegasus, and complained that the findings of two special committee sessions examining the case — including Thursday’s meeting of the Committee on Defense and Law Enforcement — had been classified by the governing party until 2050.

The alleged use of the malware against critical journalists in Hungary comes amid enduring condemnation of right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban from the European Union, of which Hungary is a member.

Orban’s critics say he has systematically wrested Hungary’s media into government control, and brought the country under increasingly autocratic rule.

In October, a spokeswoman for an EU fact-finding delegation to Hungary told journalists that the government’s refusal to confirm or deny whether it was responsible for the spying was “of great concern for the European Parliament,” but that there was “a clear sign that it was done by the government itself.”

But Kosa told journalists on Thursday that he saw no reason to object to the government’s use of Pegasus. According to Hungarian state news agency MTI, he argued that “tech giants conduct much wider surveillance” on their users than the Hungarian government had.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced it would place new export limits on NSO Group, saying its tools have been used to “conduct transnational repression.”

According to Hebrew media reports, the Biden administration only notified Israel of the move an hour before the announcement.

NSO developed Pegasus, a tool that can switch on a phone’s camera or microphone and harvest its data. There have been repeated allegations that the software is being used to abuse human rights.

The company was at the center of a storm in July after a list of about 50,000 potential surveillance targets worldwide was leaked to the media.

NSO has been accused of selling the spyware to the governments of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates, which used it to hack into the phones of dissidents, journalists, and human rights activists.

NSO has insisted that its software was intended for use only in fighting terrorism and other crimes, and the reported targeting list was not related to the company.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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