A recent survey for Hungary’s decennial census caused widespread alarm on social media, with many expressing concern that Viktor Orban’s government is gradually building a surveillance state.
The delivery of the country’s census material coincided with reports that Israel’s Avnon Group was set to provide military-grade technology to Hungary in order to “to track online discourse and analyze and understand public opinion”, as well as monitor social media.
Avnon was founded in 1990, and claims to offer “comprehensive and integral technological solutions that maintain public safety and security, under every scenario”. News of the potential partnership between Avnon and Orban’s government has led many to believe that the government plans to monitor changes in public sentiment, as well potential shifts in social tension, via social media.
Orban’s chief of staff Gergely Gulyas was quick to slam the story as “fake news,” and denied that the government had contracted the Israeli company. Even so, this did not rule out the possibility that an intelligence agency, rather than a ministry, signed the deal.
Fears of a budding surveillance state in Hungary are far from ungrounded. In 2017, one of Orban’s former state secretaries was found to have assisted Poland’s government in tracking and analysing the social media activity of protesting healthcare workers. Earlier this year, journalists announced their plans to take legal action against the Hungarian government and Israeli company NSO over their being targeted by Pegasus spyware.
Meanwhile, Hungary’s Special Service for National Security (SSNS) recently put out a recruiting call for so-called surveillants, or agents to be tasked with physically following and spying on targets. Just a few months ago, the government increased the country’s intelligence agencies’ budget by an unprecedented 50 per cent. More than half of the 70 million euro increase was allocated to the SSNS.
Another cause for alarm is Orban’s overhaul of Hungary’s intelligence agencies after winning the parliamentary election in April. As part of his surveillance state redesign, both the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade were stripped of their security services, which were instead passed on to the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister.
Following that, a new centralised structure was created, with the formation of the National Information Centre. This new body has been tasked with collecting every piece of data from the different intelligence and law enforcement agencies, giving the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office direct access to intelligence across the country.
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