Israeli firm to sell social media-tracking software to Orban’s Hungary

Official at Avnon Group says sale to Budapest, which has been accused of using Israeli spyware against journalists, was approved by the Defense Ministry

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) and Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer review an honor guard in front of the Federal Chancellery during Orban's official visit to Austria in Vienna, July 28, 2022. (Alex Halada/AFP)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) and Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer review an honor guard in front of the Federal Chancellery during Orban's official visit to Austria in Vienna, July 28, 2022. (Alex Halada/AFP)

An Israeli technology firm is poised to sell software for mapping and tracking social media activities to Hungary, a senior official in the company told The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site Zman Yisrael.

The Avnon Group, a high-tech conglomerate based in the Tel Aviv suburb of Kfar Saba, will provide Budapest with technology that will allow the government to track online discourse and analyze and understand public opinion, the senior official said.

Avnon Group does not know for what specific purpose the Hungarian government wants the software beyond its general interest in tracking public opinion, according to the official.

However, the official assumed that the Hungarian government’s interest in the technology stems from the growing social and political tensions in Hungary over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the entrance of tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees into the country, some of them illegally.

Hungary in recent years has faced growing criticism of its human rights abuses, particularly against LGBTQ people and women, as well as the country’s Roma minority. Budapest has also been accused of using the Israeli NSO Group’s powerful Pegasus software to hack and monitor the phones of journalists, politicians and human rights activists.

An international investigation determined that Budapest spied on journalists and photographers from the Hungarian news outlet Direct 36, which had uncovered questionably behavior by the Russian and Hungarian governments, as well as on researchers working for billionaire George Soros, whom Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban fiercely opposes.

This past March, the European Union announced it was launching an investigation into the alleged use of the Pegasus software by both Hungary and Poland.

According to the official, all of Avnon Group’s sales to foreign countries are approved by the Defense Ministry, including the one to Hungary. The Defense Ministry did not immediately comment on the matter.

Israel has faced major criticism for what was seen as a laissez-faire attitude regarding the sale of powerful surveillance technology to countries with questionable human rights records. In the wake of the blowback, the government said it was rolling out harsher rules for such sales, but in recent weeks the Defense Ministry has announced it was easing the red tape.

Orban is a fierce opponent of immigration. He is also a staunch supporter of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and rarely criticizes him. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has been fiercely denounced by much of the world, Orban’s views have increased the tensions between Hungary and both NATO and the European Union, both of which it is a part of, as well as stoking discord internally.

The Avnon Group was formed in 1990, and its advisory board includes two former IDF generals, a former police chief, and a former head of the Mossad spy agency. The firm develops, manufactures and markets advanced weaponry, including cyber tools.

The ongoing war in Ukraine has dramatically increased the firm’s operations in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania. This is primarily because these countries fear that they too will face Russian aggression, leading to an arms race.

Other Israeli firms have similarly increased their sales to Eastern Europe in the past year. Israeli defense contractors have not been selling advanced weapons and munitions to Ukraine directly because the government will not allow such sales. However, they have occasionally occurred with third countries acting as intermediaries.

For instance, Zman Yisrael recently found that an Israeli firm — one of six that manufactures technologies for defending against drones — sold such technology to Ukraine through a third party.

The Hebrew version of this article first appeared on The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael, here.

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