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Gov’t proposes new guidelines for surveilling journalists, church leaders and MPs

The Ministry of Interior has uploaded a proposal to its website concerning the secret surveillance of those working in the media, church leaders and parliamentarians. Under the proposal, state security services would need a thumbs-up from the National Data Protection and Freedom of Information Agency (NAIH) before engaging in the clandestine surveillance of these groups.

Currently, state security services need the approval of either a government minister or judge before engaging in the intrusive data gathering of certain individuals — which includes listening in on phone calls and planting bugs in one’s home and office.

However, this system has inherent risks. After all, the minister is a member of the government, and the state security services are technically overseen by the parliament’s national security committee (which is controlled by Fidesz, despite being chaired by Zsolt Molnár, a member of the political opposition).

The proposal unveiled on Friday sets forth rules on whose data can be secretly gathered by the state’s security services. This group includes:

  • Anyone violating or planning to violate national security interests (provided some kind of data suggests this to be the case),
  • Anyone connected to the aforementioned person,
  • Anyone whose personal information is vital to know because it would either put at risk or protect Hungary’s national interests, and
  • Anyone who has granted authorities approval to secretly gather data on them.

As Index.hu points out, the government considers George Soros-tied NGOs to pose such risks. The daily online suggests that this proposal would essentially allow for the secret gathering of data on members of civil society.

According to the proposal, the state could only secretly collect the data of journalists, MPs and church employees once the National Data Protection and Freedom of Information Agency grants approval. However, the proposal also states that the NAIH’s approval is not a precondition for the secret gathering of information.

In other words, state security services can target the individual regardless of what the NAIH says. The justice minister has 48 hours (from the time he or she authorizes the operation) to transmit the surveillance request to the NAIH. The NAIH will then have another 72 hours to render a decision. If the NAIH decides that the data information gathering operation is unlawful, it can order that the security services cease with the operation and delete all information gathered over the past 120 hours, or five days.

According to Index, the bill also indicates that if anyone becomes aware the state’s security services have been unlawfully gathering data on them, the individual can turn to the NAIH, which then has three months to review the complaint. If the NAIH determines that the secret data gathering did in fact occur, it can order the services to cease with the operation AND can even file a criminal complaint.

Whether these assurances actually mean much depends on whether the unlawfully surveilled individual trusts that the information on them will be deleted, and whether the person believes that law enforcement agencies would take the criminal complaints seriously.

The move is prompted by a 2016 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that found existing Hungarian legislation did not provide sufficiently precise, effective and comprehensive safeguards on the ordering, execution and potential redressing of surveillance measures (pp 20-21). That case was filed by two former employees of the Eötvös Károly Institute, a Hungarian NGO dealing with democracy and public affairs. Ironically, just six months after that decision was rendered, and one week after the European Court of Human Rights shot down an appeal by the Hungarian government, the Eötvös Károly Institute found a bug in their office. The government denied having any knowledge of the bug.

Another important issued addressed in the proposal

According to the proposal, the minister responsible for overseeing the internal security services must grant approval for any individual or company from outside the European Economic Area to acquire more than 25 percent in certain Hungarian businesses.

Such businesses include the manufacturers of firearms or ammunition, dual use products, surveillance devices, devices manufactured for use by the state’s security services, financial service providers, energy providers (electricity, gas, water), telecommunication companies, companies dealing with atomic and nuclear energy technologies (manufacturing, R&D, or trade), companies that supply products important to public health and disease prevention and control, and companies that construct, develop or operate governmental registries, databases or information technology systems.

The government minister would have 60 days to decide whether the investment would pose a risk to Hungary’s national security interests.

Benjamin Novak :