Surveillance in Hungary: What you need to know

They’re trying very, very hard with this story.

They’re trying very, very hard with this story. Pushing the claim that Hungary has used surveillance inappropriately, they assert that alleged political opponents have been targeted in the name of national security. So great is their exertion, as we say in Hungarian, you can smell the perspiration.

And it has led them to flimsy conclusions and a neglect of the facts.

Here’s one of their claims: Laws in Hungary regulating the use of surveillance remain very loose.

That’s simply false. The laws in Hungary, in fact, contain some of the strictest provisions to limit use of surveillance and are modelled on the German example.

Today’s law was adopted in 1995 by a two-thirds majority in parliament. Following the German example, it puts in place a number of checks and balances.

The secret services fall under the supervision of all three branches of power, that is, the executive, the judiciary, and the legislative body. Hungary has five, separate security agencies that fall under three ministries – a protection against too much centralization.

Furthermore, secret security activities that invade privacy must always be approved by an external official -- an appointed judge in criminal cases, or the minister of justice in matters of intelligence or counter-intelligence. These activities always require individual authorization and must meet strict criteria of efficiency, necessity and proportionality.

These national security services are then supervised by the National Assembly’s National Security Committee. This committee, by the way, can only be led by an opposition MP.

In the case of monitoring phone records and computers, for example, that is carried out by the Special Service for National Security (known by its Hungarian acronym, NBSZ), but it requires the approval of an external judge or the justice minister and must meet those efficiency, necessity and proportionality criteria. That guarantees that such activity is supervised and documented by three separate institutions.

That’s not all.

The tasks of each secret service refer to specific offences, so authorization of any activity must be given for a very specific reason.

Associates of secret services must not be members of political parties and must not engage in political activity – that’s something you won’t find in the laws of many western democracies.

The personnel of secret services may not conduct investigations and are forbidden from employing coercive measures.

The finances of secret services are scrutinized by the State Audit and the Government Control Office, and they must report annually on their activities to the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information.

Finally, the Act on National Security has been in front of the Constitutional Court a couple of times for review, and the court has not found anything in the law that could jeopardize the rule of law in Hungary.

The media on this story are pursuing an agenda. And in their determination to drive that agenda, they’ve abandoned objectivity.

Those who claim that Hungary’s laws on the security services are loose simply don’t know their facts.