A scandal erupted in Hungary after information that a number of journalists and public figures could be spied on via their smartphones using the spy software Pegasus by the Israeli company NSO, which is sold exclusively to governments.
The software was usually activated while they were working on investigative material. The Hungarian analytical group Direkt36 reported that about 300 people in the country could potentially have been spied on.
At least three Hungarian journalists are now known to have been most likely spied on. Data from Andras Szabo’s phone could have been forwarded since June 2019, when he wrote about the luxury cars of Antal Rogan — a member of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s cabinet — and his entourage.
The second journalist likely to have been followed was Szabolcs Panyi. He said that he suspected surveillance since spring. His phone may have first been “broken” in April 2019, when he and Szabo wrote an article about the International Investment Bank, and then — while working on materials about Hungarian-American, Hungarian-Israeli relations and the case of Russian arms dealers, who after his arrest Hungary extradited to Moscow, not the United States.
The third journalist was David Dersenyi, who had previously worked for Hvg. hu. According to him, he has not dealt with any sensitive topics and does not understand why anyone would want to follow him and what risks to journalists who deal with sensitive investigations if that were the case.
The Hungarian government denies having bought the NSO Group’s software. Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, who also oversees the Office of Information, responsible for preventing foreign intelligence work, said he was not aware of the surveillance.
Earlier, it became known that hundreds of journalists, human rights activists, and activists in various countries may have been victims of spyware surveillance. The international consortium of journalists, led by the French organization Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, announced this after the study. According to the findings, intelligence agencies in several countries could have purchased the NSO Group product to monitor the phones of journalists and human rights activists. At the same time, the available leaked data from about 50,000 smartphones do not provide enough information to draw a definite conclusion as to who exactly was spying.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that the information made public still needs to be verified, but if it is true, it violates every possible European standard. “Freedom of the press is one of the key European values. And if the allegations in the media are true, it is absolutely unacceptable,” she responded.
Pegasus software is considered one of the best spyware for smartphones. Surveillance can be conducted in real-time and bypass messenger encryption. The company sells the software exclusively to government agencies and to fight terrorism and crime.