Tag Archives: ministry of interior

Toward a police state? A proposed government “data grab”

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.

August 8, 2017

Are security agents recruiting informants in media outlets?

The usually well-informed 444.hu published a story that has shaken the world of the Hungarian media. It was about an unnamed journalist (G.) who in December 2015 was approached by two men identifying themselves as agents of the Alkotmányvédelmi Hivatal (AH) or, in English, the Constitution Protection Office. According to the organization’s website, the primary duty of the office is the defense of the constitutional order against illegal attempts to overthrow it. These attacks may come from “extremist religious groups or organizations established on an anti-democratic ideological basis. For information gathering and observation AH can use secret service means and methods.”

G. was approached on the street on his way to his newspaper’s editorial office. The men said they wanted to talk to him about matters concerning his own “safety.” Although G. wanted to have the conversation right there, the two men insisted on going elsewhere. There he was confronted with intimate details of his and his family’s private life. He was told that the information was collected not by their own office but by “someone else with harmful intent.” They could help him but only if G. would be willing to cooperate. They kept insisting that he sign a long-term cooperative agreement to report to them. He didn’t find out what he was supposed to report to AH’s secret service men. He simply refused to sign. But he did agree to a second meeting because he was hoping to learn more about what the two agents were after. At this second meeting, somewhat more composed, G. told the AH agents that he intended to go to the police and file charges against the unnamed person who allegedly collected secret information on his private life. The men tried to get information out of G. about his contacts and sources, but G. refused to cooperate or to sign anything. And that was that. When 444.hu went to the ministry of interior responsible for the secret services, the spokesman for the ministry didn’t deny that such an encounter had taken place. He simply copied out the appropriate passages from the laws governing the functioning of the office. It was all legal, he insisted.

People familiar with the methods of the secret service during the Kádár regime recall that this kind of blackmail was a classic way to force unwilling people to cooperate with the ministry of interior’s infamous III/III department. Using so-called “sensitive material” from people’s private lives, according to experts, is still allowable today. But this information could be exploited only if “the security of Hungary were in immediate danger,” which was certainly not the case here.

By the next day journalists began to express their fears that G.’s encounter with the agents of AH might not be unique and asked themselves how many such willing or unwilling recruits are already in the editorial offices of media outlets. In the last few months quite a few suspicious stories came to light indicating that agents keep a tab on politicians and journalists. In 2014 the police confiscated a journalist’s cellphone in the hope of getting information on his sources. In May 2016 the police listened in on the telephone conversations of a journalist from Blikk. Benedek Jávor, PM member of the European Parliament, became aware that a third person was listening to his telephone conversations.

Naturally, all opposition parties protested, and the socialist chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security promised to discuss the matter next Thursday. The ministry and the head of AH will be called to report on the case. I don’t expect much from this meeting. Zsolt Molnár, the socialist chairman, usually accepts the disinformation that government agencies dump on the committee.

As I was gathering material for this post I recalled, though only in the vaguest of terms, a report about the ministry of interior’s failed attempt to make it legal to plant members of the secret service in editorial offices. Soon enough I unearthed the story. On November 4, 2015 Index discovered the offensive section in a 34-page amendment package to the law on the status of the various branches of the police. ¶38 listed the organizations that must have working relations with the national security establishment: telegraphic and postal service, energy suppliers, firms connected to the armaments industry. There is nothing surprising in this list thus far, but what made the journalists of Index stop was the mention of “content providers” (tartalomszolgáltatók). No definition of content providers was given but, according to the normal understanding of the phrase, it includes print and internet news sites as well as radio and television stations.

government-spying2

It took only a few hours for Sándor Pintér’s ministry to announce that “the Hungarian opposition was deliberately misinterpreting” the text. “It only allows what was already in force.” Members of the national security apparatus are already employed in the offices of telecommunication services. As Index pointed out, there are two problems with this denial. One is that in the law on the media “tartalomszolgáltató” is defined as “any media service provider or supplier of other media content.” The other difficulty is that if this provision “was already in force,” either it was being applied illegally or, if it was legal, why did the government want to create a new law to provide for it?

The upshot, I believe, is that Sándor Pintér indeed wanted to create a law that would allow the government to legally place agents in the offices of radio and TV stations, newspapers, and internet news providers but the opposition and the media discovered that crucial paragraph and the government had to retreat.

That was in November in 2015, and about a month later G. had his encounter with the two AH agents. I can’t help thinking that there is a connection between the failed attempt of the ministry of interior to change the law on national security and the effort of the two agents to recruit G. If that hypothesis is correct, we can be pretty certain that G. was not the only journalist approached. He had the guts to say no, although it took him almost a year to gather his courage and come forward with the story of his encounter.

It is unlikely that the upheaval will end here. G. is being encouraged to file charges. It is also possible that others will come forth with similar stories. But no matter what happens, the case will have a chilling effect on the already frightened journalists whose opportunity to ply their trade honestly and independently is shrinking in Orbán’s Hungary.

September 9, 2016

Hungarian army recruitment: modern-day impressment?

An outcry followed an article that appeared in Kisalföld, a regional paper serving the county of Győr-Moson-Sopron in the northwestern corner of the country. The newspaper learned that people who are currently employed as public workers had received notices to appear at the Hungarian Army’s recruiting center in Győr. If they do not oblige, their names will be deleted from the list of those seeking employment.

Following up, a reporter for the paper got in touch with the recruiting office. He was told that at the recruiting center public workers will receive information about careers in the military and will be given the usual tests. If a person is fit to serve and refuses, he will lose his public work status and therefore his job. Well, that sounded very much like eighteenth-century British impressment. Moreover, within a few hours it became known that public workers in other counties as well will have to pay a visit to the recruiting office. It seems as if the ministry of defense is planning to involve the whole country, hoping to get new recruits this way.

The ministry of defense didn’t outright deny the story reported by Kisalföld. The ministry’s statement stressed only that “acceptance of service is not compulsory. It is merely an opportunity.” That’s fine and dandy, but since it is the ministry of interior that is in charge of the public works program, any retaliation would come from that ministry. After all, according to the rules and regulations, if a public worker declines a job offer, he loses his public works job. But today the ministry of interior assured the public that as long as the public worker shows up at the recruiting office, he will have fulfilled his obligation and will not have to worry about his job in the public works program.

kozmunkasok

We know that the Hungarian Army, according to some estimates, needs an additional 8,000 men and women, but this doesn’t strike me as the best way to beef up the numbers. Yes, at least in theory, military service could benefit those young men and women who lack the skills necessary to get steady, good-paying jobs. Ideally, the army could offer them an opportunity to learn useful skills. But the Hungarian army is not that kind of a place. Moreover, the pay is low.

It is hard to get exact figures on the pay of military personnel. In 2012 Csaba Hende, then minister of defense, in an answer to a socialist MP, said that enlisted men and women on average receive 137,425 forints a month, non-commissioned officers 191,157, and officers 389,522. The take-home pay is about half of these amounts, that is only $246 for an enlisted soldier. In 2011 a career advisory site outlined possibilities for youngsters if they chose a military career. According to information the site provided, 4,800 people visited the recruiting centers in 2011 but only 1,170, among them 80 women, got to the point of actually submitting an application, and only 837 were accepted. According to the career advisory site, a private first class’s basic pay was only 106,000 forints, a corporal made 119,000, a buck sergeant 130,000, and a sergeant 142,000 forints. No wonder that interest in signing up is minimal.

At the very end of 2014 the government at last announced a 30% hike in salaries, starting July 1, 2015, and it promised that by January 1, 2019 salaries will be 50% higher on average than now. The government loves to talk about what they call “életpálya,” which simply means “career,” usually used with an adjective like “katonai életpálya” (military career) “pedagógus életpálya” (teaching career). I came to the conclusion that having a career in their vocabulary means earning “a salary one can live on.” Even with all the wage hikes, the ordinary enlisted man will not have a military “career.”

Despite all the rhetoric, the Orbán government, instead of allocating more money to the military, systematically reduced its funding. For the latest wage hikes the ministry simply had no money. The added expenses were covered by the prime minister’s office.

Hungary is supposed to have a military force of 29,700 men and women. In June 2014 Csaba Hende talked about 5,921 unfilled jobs in the army. And, he said, past efforts at recruitment had yielded meager results. Since then another 2,000 or so have left the army. Thus, the size of the Hungarian army at the moment is only 22,000. Therefore, at the end of 2015 the decision was made to increase the intensity of recruitment in 2016. The army began advertising on the internet and decided to launch mobile recruiting centers, I assume in smaller towns and villages.

It is on the level of enlistees that shortages are acute. According to military analysts, the shortage of personnel could easily be remedied if the army would change the balance among officers, non-commissioned officers, enlisted men, and civil servants. As it stands now, the percentage of professional officers in the force is 30%. If their numbers were reduced to 10%, a great deal of money would be freed to pay the enlisted soldiers and the non-commissioned officers better. Apparently, a healthy mix would be 10% officers, 30% non-commissioned officers, 50% enlisted men and women, and 10% civilians. But such a move would meet stiff resistance from the officer corps, especially the “untouchable” general staff. As long as a more reasonable balance cannot be introduced, the recruitment effort will not be successful.

But let’s return to the deal between the ministry of defense and the ministry of interior. As it is, the public works program is used, especially in smaller places, as a political weapon. Most of those who take part in the program are at the mercy of the mayors, who decide who will and who will not be hired. In smaller places, although voting is secret, it is easy to figure out whether the fairly large public works crew voted for Fidesz. These small-town mayors behave like feudal lords during the reigns of weak kings, who carved out large regions where they acted like “kiskirályok” (little kings). In fact, people refer to these local tyrants as little kings.

The people who have no way to earn money outside of the public works program are in a subservient position economically and politically. I suspect that the ministries of defense and interior thought that some form of impressment was a capital idea, a policy that would fly under the radar. I do hope that the assurances coming from the ministry of the interior are for real because otherwise Hungarians are in bigger trouble than we think.

July 26, 2016