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Hungary Launches Probe As Global Spyware Scandal Reverberates

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been accused by the EU of flouting democracy with a series of laws seen as curtailing human rights and a free press.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been accused by the EU of flouting democracy with a series of laws seen as curtailing human rights and a free press.

Hungarian prosecutors have launched a probe into the alleged unlawful surveillance of critics of Prime Minister Viktor Orban as governments around the world continue to scramble to deal with the fallout from a scandal over the misuse of Israeli-made spyware.

A global-media consortium recently reported that spyware made by the Israel-based NSO Group may have been used to hack the smartphones of more than a dozen current or former world leaders, as well as hundreds of other officials, journalists, and rights activists worldwide.

The Budapest Regional Investigation Prosecutor's Office said on July 22 that it was launching an investigation after several complaints over allegations that local journalists and businessmen were spied on.

French President Emmanuel Macron called an urgent national-security meeting to weigh possible action after reports that his cellphone and those of government ministers may have been targeted by the Israeli-made Pegasus spyware.

In Jerusalem, Israeli lawmakers appointed an interministerial team to assess the reports -- based on an investigation by 17 media organizations -- that said Pegasus had been used in attempted or successful hacks of smartphones using malware that enables the extraction of messages, records calls, and secretly activates microphones.

One of Macron's mobile-phone numbers was reportedly found on a list of potential spying targets drawn up by Moroccan intelligence services. Morocco has denied any involvement that it has spied on any public figures; the French president's office was quick to point out that inclusion on the list did not mean that Macron's phone had actually been compromised.

However, if the reported facts are true, they are "of course very serious," it said in a statement.

Hungarian opposition lawmakers and rights activists immediately called for an inquiry after the spyware allegations were published on July 18 and included accusations that Orban's right-wing government may have used the powerful malware to spy on critical journalists, politicians, and business figures.

Direkt36, a Hungarian investigative-journalism outlet, has revealed that the phones of more than 300 Hungarian nationals were identified as possible targets for infection.

Amnesty International said its experts had confirmed several cases where the spyware was successfully installed on the phones of targets, noting that "Hungary’s surveillance practices have long been a matter of concern.”

"The task of the investigation is to establish the facts and to determine whether and, if so, what crime has taken place," the Budapest Regional Investigation Prosecutor's Office said in a statement.

Orban has been accused by the EU of flouting democracy with a series of laws seen as curtailing human rights and a free press. His government, however, has denied any use of the Pegasus software "in any way."

According to reports by the media consortium that investigated the issue, NSO Group's clients included both autocratic regimes and democratic governments: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and the United Arab Emirates.

The NSO Group has rejected the reporting by the media partners, saying it was "full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories." An NSO official said that Macron was not a target and that the company would review some cases that were revealed by the consortium and press clients about how they are using the system.

Amid mounting EU concern, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on July 22 called for "very restrictive conditions" on the trade in spyware such as Pegasus in countries in which judicial oversight is weak.

Merkel said it was "important" that "software configured in this way should not land in the wrong hands."

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP
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