While the media is focused on the Kremlin’s “hybrid warfare” against the Western democracies or the Chinese social credit system controlling people’s everyday life through mass-surveillance, the illiberal state of Viktor Orbán is also doing its fair share to exercise information control over its citizens, the opposition and the few independent media and NGOs left in Hungary via new digital powers.
The Hungarian National Assembly has recently begun the debate over the establishment of a new centralized database to store the footage of all CCTV-cameras operated in Hungary to be adopted by the Hungarian National Assembly in December 2018, while there is another plan on the table to be voted on this November to register the personal data of every domestic or foreign visitor checking into any private accommodation. All this raises serious questions about information security in light of the Hungarian government officials’ repeated legislative attempts to legally reign in or conduct surveillance on the independent critics of the regime. It also raises important national security concerns for the European Union and the Euro Atlantic Community, since the Hungarian government is well-known for cosying up to the Kremlin and sharing sensitive information with it.
Systems of mass-surveillance
The Hungarian example points to the dark side of the political “securitization” process, during which otherwise “innocent” information technologies or useful new regulations tailored to the needs of 21st century public service can be abused by autocratic regimes without proper external oversight and political transparency. The new CCTV-database established under the Ministry of Interior would gather all recordings for the last 30 days of tens of thousands of cameras operated by the police, public area maintenance companies, public transport vehicles and banks, ATMs, making those accessible to the Hungarian police, courts, public prosecutors and the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (NAIH) to prevent or pursue crimes more easily by using face-recognition programs. Similar systems are already in place, for example in Great Britain or Belgium, for anti-terrorism purposes. However, bulk data collection and the identification of everyone recorded without ongoing legal proceedings would run counter the constitutional protection of personal data and it would enable Hungarian authorities to operate an almost automated “secret visual surveillance system” nationwide. These concerns are echoed both by the human rights watchdog Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and by Attila Péterfalvi, the head of NAIH. The other legislation introduced to the National Assembly would create the National Tourist Data Center (Nemzeti Turisztikai Adatszolgáltató Központ or NTAK), which would require all private accommodation providers with more than 8 rooms to mandatorily register the name, date of birth and travel document data of each guest in the NTAK-database after July 2019. Although the data retrieved by the Hungarian authorities should be anonymized and authorized by proper procedures, previous Hungarian legislative measures against NGOs and the Hungarian government’s past inclination to conduct surveillance on civil society actors raises serious concerns over the ethical and lawful use of the new systems of surveillance.
Hungarian independent NGOs under illegal surveillance
For one, the Hungarian government had to amend Act CXXV of 1995 on the National Security Services and Act CXII of 2011 on information self-determination and freedom of information in the wake of a 2016 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) stipulating that the Hungarian Counter Terrorism Centre (TEK) was provided with too much authority to conduct secret intelligence gathering on journalists, MPs and clergymen based on ministerial approval only, without any court oversight. Moreover, the Hungarian government increased its information control over Hungarian society by creating a highly centralized media conglomerate consisting of more than 500 media outlets, owned by pro-government oligarchs, and by enacting an anti-NGO law in June 2018 on the transparency of organisation receiving foreign funds to discredit independent organisations. At the height of the government’s campaign against its real or perceived enemies before the Hungarian parliamentary election in April 2018, government officials threatened Hungarian civil society with surveillance, followed by actual illegal surveillance operations conducted against them to provide the ruling Fidesz-KDNP coalition with political ammunition during the election.
In October 2017, János Lázár, then minister for the Prime Minister’s Office and the oversight authority of the Information Office, one of five Hungarian intelligence services, requested Minister of Interior Sándor Pintér to conduct a secret service inquiry into the activities of independent media and NGOs that were allegedly supported by billionaire philanthropist George Soros to assist illegal immigration into Hungary. Despite the fact that the former allegation proved to be unfounded, it contributed to the successful construction and maintenance of a several years’ long “moral panic” based on government commissioned conspiracy theories about George Soros, Brussels, the UN, Hungarian NGOs, etc. trying to settle millions of illegal immigrants into Europe and Hungary. The Black Cube scandal revealed that the Hungarian government or associates of it did use illegal surveillance provided by the Black Cube private security company to back these false claims against the “enemies of the state” up. In March 2018, a well-known rightist Hungarian journalist Zsolt Bayer, who is one of the founders of the ruling Fidesz and a personal friend of PM Orbán, started a series of articles called “Soros Leaks” to prove the pro-immigration conspiracy against Hungary was real based on illegally recorded conversations with leaders of independent Hungarian NGOs, like Migration Aid, and the Open Society Foundation established by George Soros. It was later acknowledged by Black Cube, an international private security firm founded by Israeli ex-agents , that they were, in fact, targeting and taping Hungarian NGOs during fake business conversations to gather intelligence on them. According to intelligence sources, these illegal operations could not have been conducted without the knowledge of the Hungarian government in order to prevent any international diplomatic conflicts, moreover, the Constitution Protection Office, the main Hungarian counterintelligence security agency was even alerted of the illegal activity by one of the targeted NGOs in January, 2018. The Hungarian government’s role in the action is proven by the fact that the Hungarian intelligence community did nothing to defend the targets of Black Cube, while PM Viktor Orbán personally cited the “Soros Leaks” articles as proof for the existence of the 2000 men strong “Soros army” in Hungary in one of his major interviews given to Zsolt Bayer, the author of those articles, right before the election in April 2018.
The new government of Viktor Orbán seems to continue the surveillance of the civil society and the political opposition in general. According to a recent contract obtained by the investigative portal Átlátszó, Rogán Antal, the head of the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister, which is going to oversee the new NTAK database of tourism, is employing a company to monitor online news media, blogs, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to fight against “fake news” spread by media “linked t
George Soros.” PM Orbán can also exercise a more direct informational authority over Hungarian citizens’ data through his newly created Intelligence Centre under the Government Office of the Prime Minister as part of the new governmental structure in 2018.
Euro Atlantic or European national security further compromised by Russia
This kind of collection and storing of sensitive personal data in Hungarian databases also constitutes a national security threat on both the general and the more practical levels for Hungary and the Euro-Atlantic Community. Firstly, the Hungarian government does not acknowledge the threat posed by Russian disinformation or hybrid warfare and the need for any countermeasures against it, which makes these new databases made up of data on millions of Hungarian or foreign citizens vulnerable to cyber-attacks of the Russian Federation. This threat is even more significant, if we consider the Hungarian Ministry of Interior refused to investigate how the Russian military intelligence agency GRU could infiltrate and train a Hungarian paramilitary organisation for years, thereby making Hungary a playground for the Russian services with few rules to obey. In fact, the Hungarian information vulnerability was already exploited by the Kremlin’s associates, when the government’s “Stop Brussels” National Consultation for 2017 operated an official National Consultation website that utilized “Yandex Metrika” of the Russian Yandex company often referred to as the Russian Google, known for sharing information with Russian intelligence.
As a result, Hungarian visitors full name, age, and email address were transmitted, probably due to a Hungarian administrative mistake, to Russian servers until Hungarian watchdog organisations alerted Hungarian authorities of the incident. On a more practical and political level, the warm diplomatic ties between Hungary and the Russian government resulted in more information being shared between the two. The second Orbán cabinet, which took office after 2010, made a deliberate economic and diplomatic turn towards the Kremlin as part of its “Eastern Opening” foreign policy, an diplomatic effort to legitimize the Hungarian illiberal state, that entailed the new Paks 2 nuclear power built and financed by Rosatom; PM Orbán and President Putin having a bilateral meeting every year since 2014; Hungary rhetorically opposing the European sanctions regime against Russia all the time. Lastly, the Hungarian government has been actively blocking the NATO-Ukraine cooperation and Ukraine’s integration into Western structures on all levels to protest the new Ukrainian language law since September 2017. While Hungarian concerns are based on legitimate human rights grounds, the harsh Hungarian diplomatic blockade plays right into the Kremlin’s geopolitical effort to destabilize Ukraine. So no wonder that the Hungarian government has been sharing classified information with the FSB since 2016 and Attorney General Péter Polt has been intensifying cooperation on areas of “transnational crimes and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms” with Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika since 2017, which could obviously be even more facilitated by the aforementioned databases.
Ultimately, the threat posed by the new mass-surveillance and face-recognition tools in the hands of the illiberal Hungarian government and by extension the Kremlin makes it possible to profile everyday people or members of the elite, like who is meeting whom, what clubs, banks, supermarkets one attends etc., in order to strengthen the grip on power or follow clandestine geopolitical goals in a very complex (geo)political environment.
Lóránt Győri is a sociologist and political analyst, with a masters in social sciences from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, where he is currently working as a geopolitical analyst for the Political Capital think-tank on issues such as Russian soft power, disinformation, and populism in Europe.