George Orwell in Budapest: The new surveillance law

When faced with the task of writing a post my usual problem is that I have far too much material. On any given topic there can easily be 50-60 news items and opinion pieces. Well, that’s not my problem today. I simply can’t understand this silence about the new law on the surveillance of top government officials, especially when according to Máté Szabó, ombudsman for basic rights, and several other human rights organizations the law is unconstitutional.

Who are the people who will automatically be subjected to surveillance? The bill insists that the new bill on national security does not extend the circle of those who must undergo this procedure. According to the Hungarian-language description of the bill, the high officials who must agree to surveillance are cabinet ministers, undersecretaries, deputy-undersecretaries, government commissioners and commissioners appointed by the prime minister, heads of independent government organizations, heads of government offices handling the official business of citizens, high officials of parliament, the head of the Office of the President, ambassadors, consuls, chief of the general staff, generals, high police officers, CEOs of state companies, members of the national security offices, member of the counterintelligence, members of the parliamentary committee on national security, and even the ordinary parliamentary guards recently appointed.

So, if this surveillance bill does not affect more people than the earlier one why is everybody up in arms? One big difference is that earlier bill stated that once a person was found reliable and received security clearance he would not be the object of further surveillance. Now this provision has changed. As Fidesz’s brief announcement said, “surveillance will be continuous.” Twice a year for at least thirty days each time the government can listen to these people’s telephone conversations, search their houses, and read their correspondence. These surveillance measures would also extend to their family members. Moreover, the number of people who would have to go through this continuous clearance procedure might grow in the future because the bill contains a paragraph that allows the authorities to change the parameters by decree. That is, without amending the bill.

According to the new bill, it will no longer be necessary to get a court order to gather secret information. And there is no possibility of appeal for the wrongfully accused. Once someone  is found guilty by the Alkotmányvédelmi Hivatal (AVH, what an unfortunate name since its abbreviation is practically identical to the notorious ÁVH, Államvédelmi Hatóság) he can immediately be fired. No cause need be given.

But let’s go back a step to the questionnaire these top officials must fill out. Some of the questions are pretty routine. For example, those about alcohol or drug consumption. The Hungarian questionnaire also delves into people’s sex lives, asking them about their extramarital affairs. Another peculiarity of the bill is that the ongoing security clearance/surveillance also extends to the official’s family. So, the spouse of a high official will have to answer the same kinds of questions.

One especially objectionable item on the questionnaire is the official’s private connections with foreign nationals. Who is considered to be a foreign national? Is a German citizen a foreigner? Both the Hungarian and the German are citizens of the European Union. What about relatives living in the neighboring countries? Or Internet connections via social media? After all, some members of the government write blogs or are busy on Facebook and Twitter. Does such a link to the outside world constitute a national security risk?

A few weeks ago there was great hilarity in opposition circles when two very ignorant Fidesz members of parliament suggested that people who were members of the communist party or KISZ, the communist youth organization, before 1990 should be considered security risks and thrown out of their jobs. Well, if that had been adopted, they could have started with Viktor Orbán himself, followed by János Kövér,  János Áder, and several others. They were all KISZ secretaries. Naturally, that amendment was not approved.

Kim Scheppele was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal and told the reporter that “Hungary now allows investigation of particular individuals without any need to demonstrate a specific reason why every aspect of a person’s life must be reviewed.” She added that “that’s unheard of in democratic states” and that “the new national security law creates an Orwellian landscape in Hungary.”

Magyar Narancs / Photo Dániel Németh

Magyar Narancs / Photo Dániel Németh

Some Hungarian activists, quite independently from Kim Scheppele, also immediately thought of Orwell. Members of a group that calls itself “The Constitution is not a game” got together to teach Sándor Pintér a thing or two. About fifteen of them settled on the pavement and read George Orwell’s 1984 all day long. At the end, when they wanted to send a copy to the minister of interior, the policemen insisted that each of them sign the book before they would agree to take it inside the building.

One of the participants, approached by a reporter for Magyar Narancs, refused to talk to him in an area with trees with lots of branches because he was convinced that up in the trees among the branches the authorities place microphones. Maybe yes, maybe no. But the person was wary; Big Brother might be listening in. It says a lot about the atmosphere in Budapest.

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Member

The text of the new bill is here:
http://www.parlament.hu/irom39/10102/10102.pdf

I can see from 10§(5)(b) that Orban gave an exemption for himself.
His conversations/e-mails will be safe from [Hungarian] secret service spies.

Can teachers be put under continuous surveillance? They were made state employees from January 1, 2013. This way any state employee can be fired for political reasons.

petofi
Guest

How Blind is this sort of justice, huh Viktor?

I continue to be amazed by Orban’s total mockery of civilized statehood!
And the dumb Hungarian’s acceptance of humiliation and mockery at the hands of the Felcsutian.

Socal
Guest
Orbán and friends (so many of them are from the security services) are fascinated by security surveillance and spy agencies. Partly because they know that there are structures they can use very efficiently (and have done so numerous times) and the professional personnel is by default extremely loyal (and many are single mindedly focused i.e. are not amenable to financial temptations etc. just wanna serve), the amateurs are just blackmailed (well, reminded from time to time that they have an obligation to serve as they did in, say, 1985). Now they will have evidence legally. That is all. Note, that to save the calls and internet for a couple of thousands of people is really nothing technically these days (plus the US does it for all, that is right, for all calls according to a recent article http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/04/telephone-calls-recorded-fbi-boston). By the way, I wonder what will the guy (József Horvath) from the Military Security Agency who just resigned do and who was part of the UD Zrt. case and is a former III/III pro, I guess he will go back to strengthen the private security system of Fidesz. Also I was just reminded that the the current Hungarian ambassador to Germany… Read more »
Member

Orwell:

“It was not desirable that the proles should have strong political feelings.
All that was required of them was a primitive patriotism which could be appealed to
whenever it was necessary to make them accept longer working-hours or shorter rations.
And even when they became discontented, as they sometimes did, their discontent led nowhere, because, being without general ideas, they could only focus it on petty specific grievances.

The larger evils invariably escaped their notice.”

Member

“And if the facts say otherwise, then the facts must be altered. Thus history is continuously rewritten. This day-to-day falsification of the past, carried out by the Ministry of Truth, is as necessary to the stability of the régime as the work of repression and espionage carried out by the Ministry of Love. “

Ms KKA
Guest

While I am appalled at the latest in a long string of civil and human rights violations being perpetrated on the good folks in Hungary, I am equally appalled by what my fellow citizen here in the US continue to allow the government to do under the Patriot Act. The NSA has had the entire country under surveillance for many years now, but few people even realize it, let alone speak up about it. The hypocrisy of Washington condemning the actions of the Hungarian government while Guantanamo remains open, and American citizens are being targeted and killed by our own drones, is mind-boggling.

benhawking
Guest

Although I generally appreciate and respect Ms. Kim Lane Scheppele’s experience with and informed opinion on Hungarian affairs, her claim that this type of government practice is “unheard of in democratic states” is either naïvety or disinformation. Both of which are unacceptable for a person in her position.

I mean, she really said that amidst the current AP scandal in the US? That is just one tiny example of unabridged domestic surveillance in a “democratic” state.

I certainly don’t support the further development of Hungarian surveillance, one only needs to look to the past to understand, and rarely do I support much of anything from the current Hungarian government. With statements like this, however, one can sympathize the accusations from József Szájer, PM Orbán, and others about the hypocritical double standards from the US government and media.

Dan
Guest

I have to agree with the last two comments. There are very broad powers of surveillance of individual citizens in the US and federal agencies spy on their employees – including scientists at the FDA – using secret software. A massive sureveillance operation was launched against the Associated Press recently. The NYPD says it routinely carries out surveillance on entire Muslim communities. This latest Hungarian law at least informs those top officials that they are being monitored. I really don’t understand how Lane Schappelle is able to make the statement about this level of surveillance being unprecedented in a democracy. I’d be very surprised if US generals weren’t under some kind of surveillance. To be honest I’d be more worried if this law included ordinary citizens and subjected them to the same broad surveillance available to US authorities – they can monitor ALL contact between US citizens with contacts believed to be outside the US.

Member

Well, for the US government this is anti-terrorism, for Orban, is collecting data that later can be used to blackmail his adversaries. The data will end up in some secret Fidesz archive so later another government won’t be able to destroy it.

But this isn’t the big thing here. This is a pussy dictatorship. Typical Hungarian more bark than bite.

I smell big money here. There is no trained staff available to carry this out, especially the ongoing surveillance. This will be outsourced. I’m guessing Pinter’s interests. His old company that he sold when he became interior minister is already getting a big chunk of the security jobs from the government.

Ms KKA
Guest

Well, Mutt, you may believe what ever helps you sleep better at night, but if you think that the government here uses the information it gathers for combating terrorism, then I have some lovely oceanfront property in Kansas that I’d like to show you…make you a great deal on it! 😉

Dan
Guest

Yes, that’s the reason the security establishment always gives to extend its powers over civil society. I’m more questioning of the security establishment then that. Why does the FDA need to spy on its scientists in to prevent terrorism. it’s to prevent dissent and whistle blowers. Why does the DOJ need to conduct a massive surveillance operation against editors and journalists of the AP obtaining private emails and home phone records? I would argue that if anyone should be monitored in society then Hungary’s generals and the head of the police should be. It’s when the police and the generals start surveillance of citizens that I get worried.

Member

@ms kka I’m in! I have certified check made out for a slightly higher amount than your asking price ….

Ms KKA
Guest

Shhhh…we must keep these dealings quiet, because I think the IRS has me under surveillance now! 😛

gdfxx
Guest

I think that comparing what’s going on in Hungary with events in the US is not reasonable, for several reasons. First, the US has real enemies that it needs to protect itself from, 9/11 showed that; Orban, as any dictator, is protecting himself from his own people, any external threat is imaginary. Second, the opposition in the US is not unorganized, amateurish and quiet as the one in Hungary. Third, when push comes to shove, the press in the US (even the one that generally sympathizes with the government) speaks up strongly against any violation of the Constitution; with very few exceptions – because the rest has been silenced – one cannot see that in Hungary.

gdfxx
Guest

And I forgot possibly the most important reason: the courts in the US do what courts are supposed to do. This, generally, does not seem to happen in Hungary.

Ms KKA
Guest
@gdfxx I am loathe to have anyone think that I am an apologist for OV and his minions…nothing, and I do mean nothing, could be further from the truth. However, your concept of how things work here in the US is a bit – how can I put this – fantastic. If we have enemies here, I fear they are of our own making…not to mention the fact that what really happened on 9/11 has never been explained to my satisfaction. As for our political parties, they are the very ones who, along with the also mentioned courts, have taken civil liberties away from us, in direct defiance of our constitution. And, where you ever got the idea that the mainstream press here ever utters a word that their corporate masters (and, I am not being dramatic here) haven’t told them to is beyond me…6 giants corporations own all of the major media in this country, including newspapers, television, and internet service/content providers. Not my idea of a free press. When you speak of our courts doing what they are supposed to do, I must assume you are leaving out the part where the Supreme Court of the United States… Read more »
Kim Lane Scheppele
Guest
With all due respect to Eva, my comment that governmental spying was unique to Hungary was taken out of context. Of course, all countries, including the United States, spy on those whom they think may be disclosing state secrets or committing crimes. What makes the Hungarian case unique, as I said to the Wall Street Journal (but which they didn’t fully reproduce), are the following features: 1. The Hungarian government can spy on government officials outside the context of any official investigation, without the need to demonstrate concrete suspicion of illegal behavior before they begin the surveillance. By contrast, most constitutional governments, including the US, need something like “probable cause” of illegal conduct before intrusive surveillance can be conducted within the country. The recent surveillance of American journalists was connected to investigations of concrete leaks, though the investigation certainly seems too broad (and there will surely be litigation about this, a possibility that seems barred by the new Hungarian law). 2. The Hungarian spying can focus on anything – from national security matters to extramarital affairs to strange habits — and it is not limited by law to specific subjects. By contrast, in most constitutional governments, surveillance has to be… Read more »
Pollo1982
Guest
Make no mistake, Orbán and his minions will use these new opportunities to control people because through the surveillance they will realize that the particular person has extramarital issues, perhaps is a closeted gay, has problems with certain colleagues (also who his friends, enemies, allies are) and so on. These info will be stored by Fidesz (they will copy the info which by the way can be stored on a memory stick) and used if and when necessary, years later. There are no other reasons for this law: Fidesz is building out nothing less than a national database for citizen/voters/including senior government people who may or may not be candidates for an opposition party/and when the guy will work for an opposition government he will be asked by Fidesz for a favor and he will comply (unless he wants to let his calls made public). These info will be available for Fidesz, analyzed by its private security people and used accordingly. The best thing: everything will be legal and paid for by the Hungarian taxpayers. Well this is not nice, but they want to stay in power by any means necessary. And they will. And the sucker, naive Left and… Read more »
hotdog
Guest

Following what Vaclav Havel said in one of his essays, the real sign of a dictatorship is not when the state tells people what to do, it’s when people are so cowed that they SELF edit/correct their behaviour to conform with what they know is expected of them. They do this because they fear the consequences of not doing so.

I believe this is one of the main goals of the proposed law here. Whether or not the surveillance information is actually used, the fear that it will cause (“maybe they are listening!”) will serve to foster self-editing behaviour. The tentacles of power and control thereby grow longer and penetrate deeper..

wake up, sleepers…

Dan
Guest

@Kim Lane Scheppele Writing in the Guardian Glen Greenwald makes the following comment:

“The US operates a sprawling, unaccountable Surveillance State that – in violent breach of the core guarantees of the Fourth Amendment – monitors and records virtually everything even the most law-abiding citizens do. Just to get a flavor for how pervasive it is, recall that the Washington Post, in its 2010 three-part “Top Secret America” series, reported: “Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications.””

He also cites a 2007 heat map by Privacy International that ranks US surveillance policies alongside Russia’s for their invasiveness.

What prompted the article was the surveillance of Generals Allen and Patraeus that delved into their private lives on the thinest of pretexts, uncovering the extramarital affairs that you mention could be a focus of the Hungarian legislation.

It seems to me that the growth in state surveillance has been particularly pervasive in the UK and the US and is probably set to get much worse as the enabling technology becomes more advanced.

Dan
Guest

Oh, a link to Glen Greenwald’s Guardian article if anyone wants to read it:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/13/petraeus-surveillance-state-fbi

Guest

Again a very interesting and disturbing discussion, thanks everybody!

Re Greenwald:

He seems to be a very “special” guy from his writings – there’s an article here on his remarks about that murderous attack on the soldier in London:
http://hurryupharry.org/2013/05/25/terror-accord-to-glenn-greenwald/

Btw, thanks to the person here (forgot who it was …) who once linked to this blog “Harry’s place” – this is also a fascinating site, including the comments! Just too much to read and follow …

LwiiH
Guest

NAV employees have been subject to this type of surveillance for at least a year.

Everyone see’s the internet as being very distributed. The truth is there are a few key pinch points where one can easily tap everything coming in. For example, all of the traffic in Hungary passes through Gyor. This same condition exists just about every where else.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2175327/What-internet-really-looks-like–massive-sprawling-global-collection-wires-keeps-world-connected.html
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Karl Pfeifer
Guest
wolfi : Again a very interesting and disturbing discussion, thanks everybody! Re Greenwald: He seems to be a very “special” guy from his writings – there’s an article here on his remarks about that murderous attack on the soldier in London: http://hurryupharry.org/2013/05/25/terror-accord-to-glenn-greenwald/ Btw, thanks to the person here (forgot who it was …) who once linked to this blog “Harry’s place” – this is also a fascinating site, including the comments! Just too much to read and follow … Yes Wolfi, a very “special” guy: after the killing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, Greenwald offered the following opinion: “I have no idea who is behind the attacks. If it turns out to be Hezbollah and/or Iran, that will not shock me: after all, if it is perceived that you have sent hit squads onto a country’s soil to murder their nuclear scientists, it’s likely that the targeted nation will want to respond with violence of their own.” http://www.salon.com/2012/07/20/journalism_v_propaganda/ Guardian was once a liberal paper. Today it contains venomous antisemitism disguised often as moral purity. Eva Garrard writes about the pleasures of antisemitism. One understands also why antisemitism is unfortunately part of main stream in Hungary. “This takes us to the… Read more »
petofi
Guest
@MsKKA and gdfxx: Interesting. Both make solid points. I go with gdfxx on not comparing US and Hungarian realities…mostly because the 4th Estate (including, to a lesser degree, television) is much more independent and proactive in the US than in Hungary. I was stupefied when Orban had declared that the Azeri case “is closed” and all media shut down! (And here I was thinking that this case, correctly investigated to the very end, is the Victator’s Watergate.) As for MsKKA…she certainly pings a nerve mentioning the election of Bush younger; but then, stealing elections is not a new thing–wasn’t Kennedy’s election victory engineered in Cook county, Chicago? But finally, it has to be admitted that the freedoms in the US works against itself at times and requires special protection. One of the great problems of free societies is immigration–what are the immigrants rights and what are there responsibilities? Are immigrants being used as a counter-force to the powers of unions in the US and Britain? In turn, the immigrant population of Islamists (in Britain especially) seems to be a fifth column in the storied struggle between civilizations… The future of Democracy is fraught because transplanted, primitive elements have learned its… Read more »
Guest

tappanch: “The text of the new bill is here:
http://www.parlament.hu/irom39/10102/10102.pdf
I can see from 10§(5)(b) that Orban gave an exemption for himself.
His conversations/e-mails will be safe from [Hungarian] secret service spies.”

Big Brother is fiction. In the real world one person cannot watch everybody else. He will need helpers. Orban’s helpers will have the technology to watch Orban himself. Do you think that they can resist the temptation to do it, and privately store away information that can come in handy in a later situation? The question will be Orban’s nightmare.

Dan
Guest

It’s a pity to see Greenwald denegrated here as an anti-semite. He is Jewish American liberal and one of the most cogent and outspoken voices on the American left. He would probably be one of Orban’s biggest critics if Hungary was his subject. He currently lives in self imposed exile in Brazil. One of the reasons being he disagrees with America’s Defence of Marriage Act that restricts the federal definition of marriage to a man and a woman and stops federal benefits to same sex couples in the US. He is also gay.

LwiiH
Guest
petofi : @MsKKA and gdfxx: Interesting. Both make solid points. I go with gdfxx on not comparing US and Hungarian realities…mostly because the 4th Estate (including, to a lesser degree, television) is much more independent and proactive in the US than in Hungary. I was stupefied when Orban had declared that the Azeri case “is closed” and all media shut down! (And here I was thinking that this case, correctly investigated to the very end, is the Victator’s Watergate.) You also see the Hungarian media cherry picking those stories that support the current regime and then totally ignore the counter arguments thus truncating the discussion. Case in point, the current comments about immigration in Britain are being reported as a single (zenophobic) one sided story. Witness the emerging struggle for Shariah Law in parts of Canada… Don’t confuse discussion with struggle. There is no struggle. It’s clear that only radical elements accept Shariah law. It’s not only clear that many elements are illegal under Canadian law and the Canadian charter of rights would prevent it becoming Law. Changing the Canadian charter of rights will be a tad bit more difficult than the Hungarian constitution. And you have to admit that… Read more »
LwiiH
Guest

Eva S. Balogh :
She did it most likely because of space limitations.

That was my first thought, the dreaded word budget and editors randomly knocking out words to meet it.

Index1
Guest

The subject of the post is not what the US does or does not.

It is what happens in Hungary.

In Hungary the surveillance state is being built out to the benefit of (A) one party (Fidesz) and secondarily (B) Fidesz’ private security apparatus (recruited from retired and current Fidesz-leaning intelligence people).

These efforts make the organisation of a new opposition party even more difficult than it has been so far. And Fidesz will keep turning up the heat these are by far not the last actions in their quest to keep power by whatever means.

petofi
Guest

@Lwiih and shariah law in Canada

Ok, they’re just ‘discussing’ it for the moment, but the long term plans are there. But where do these immigrants come off even imagining its introduction in Canada? Where is respect for the adopted land and its laws? Something seems to be missing.

But you didn’t answer my main point: democracy will be hoisted by its own petard when islamists start to concentrate and become the majority in pockets with their wild birthrates of 5+ children. What then?

Ms KKA
Guest
I have 3 close Hungarian friends – one lives just down the street from me here in California, and left Hungary in 1956. Her family is from the aristocracy, and lost everything to the communists. She is a progressive Democrat, and campaigned hard for Obama’s election both times. Her godparents were Jews who converted to Catholicism, but still did not survive the camps. Her only source of news about Hungary comes from her brother, who still lives there, and with whom she speaks regularly. She believes that OV is a great guy. My second friend is a Calvinist who also left Hungary in 1956, then returned after the regime change and lived in Hungary up until it became clear that OV would be elected and the country would become what it has become, whereupon he left again, and remains abroad. He believes that Hungary has the government it deserves, and has little confidence that it will be changed. My third friend is Jewish, and lives in Hungary, believes that most Hungarians are anti-Semitic, is struggling for the opposition, but would leave in a heartbeat if financially feasible. So, while I strive everyday to bolster the opposition, and scream every time… Read more »