It doesn’t happen too often, but a few days ago Attila Péterfalvi, president of the National Authority for Data Protection of Freedom of Information (Nemzeti Adatvédelmi és Információszabadság Hatóság/NAIH), strongly criticized the government’s latest attempt to infringe upon the privacy of both Hungarian citizens and foreign visitors.
On July 31 the ministry of interior submitted a bill for consideration which, among other things, aims at a greater scrutiny of individuals and creates a central storage facility for information gathered by state and non-state authorities. Thus, as opposed to the present practice, extracting information on individuals would be a one-step process. At the moment data gathered by the different branches of government and non-government organizations (police, traffic supervision, public transportation authorities, banks, toll road monitors, etc.) can be accessed only by first presenting reasons for their legitimate use. But, as the bill reads now, there would be no judicial oversight of the collected material. Thus, every scrap of information on individuals would be collected in one place where an individual’s whole history could easily be assembled–and all that without any judicial oversight.
In addition, the ministry of interior wants to know more about everybody who spends any time in a hotel as a guest, be that person a Hungarian citizen or a foreign tourist. Hotels would have to copy people’s I.D.s or passports. The state seems to be interested in all the details: date of arrival and anticipated date of departure, sex, birthplace, birth date, citizenship, and mother’s maiden name. All this information would have to be stored and provided upon request to the various national security services. The authorities would also require hotels to install software that would enable the transfer of data collected.
It didn’t take long for Péterfalvi to label the proposed bill “a visual surveillance system for secret information gathering.” Péterfalvi’s letter to one of the assistant undersecretaries can be found on the website of NAIH. His conclusion is that the new law would “further restrict” the individual’s right to the protection of his personal data. He suggested changing the bill to make sure that the state authority that needs the piece of information documents the reasons for its request and specifies the precise scope of the inquiry. He also wants further restrictions on surveillance around churches, polling stations, political meetings, and demonstrations. In addition, Péterfalvi wants NAIH to have the authority to verify the use of the documents requested by the state authorities.
Now that practically the whole government is on vacation, István Hollik of the Christian Democratic Party was the one to react to Péterfalvi’s opposition to the bill. Hollik was brief and noncommittal. According to him, the government will have to consider whether Péterfalvi’s proposals can be incorporated into the bill. But, he added, since the bill otherwise is fine, he sees no problem with the small changes proposed by the president of NAIH. I’m not sure whether Hollik understands that Péterfalvi’s requirements are more substantive than they may appear at first glance.
In any case, Demokratikus Koalíció isn’t satisfied with Péterfalvi’s solution to the problem. The party wants the whole bill to be withdrawn. Péter Niedermüller, co-chair of the party and member of the European Parliament, announced that if the bill, even with the amendments, is passed by the Hungarian parliament, DK will turn to the European Commission because the party believes that the law doesn’t comport with the constitution of the European Union.
Viktor Szigetvári, the president of Együtt’s board, also wants the ministry of interior to immediately withdraw the bill. In his opinion, the bill paves the way for the establishment of a police state. He called attention to the anti-democratic practices of Russia, whose president is Viktor Orbán’s role model, and therefore he suspects that Orbán’s intentions are anything but benevolent. He considers the bill another sign of Orbán’s plans for unlimited power.
MSZP, which seems to be far too preoccupied with its own problems, didn’t make any official announcement about the party’s position on the question. The only comment came from Zsolt Molnár, chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, whose status in the party is more than shaky after his recent open disagreement with László Botka, the party’s candidate for the premiership. MSZP usually takes a less categorical position than the other opposition parties, and therefore I wasn’t particularly surprised when Molnár stated that there is a need for a new law on data protection but there are several problems with this bill. He called the proposal “excessive, even if national security precautionary measures sometimes justify stricter restrictions.” As usual, MSZP is sitting on the fence.
So far, only a couple of foreign papers have reported on Péterfalvi’s reaction to the proposed bill. Euractive introduced the topic with the headline “Hungary rights chief denounced ‘data grab’ bill,” using AFP’s report from Budapest. It quoted from an interview with Péterfalvi on KlubRádió where he claimed that the bill “would give almost automatic access to personal data.”
I assume the issue will not come up until late September, when the parliament reconvenes.