Hungarian official confirms government bought and used Pegasus spyware

A Hungarian government official has confirmed this week that the small central European country has bought and deployed Pegasus, a commercial spyware program developed by Israeli company NSO Group.

Lajos Kosa, chair of the Parliament's Defense and Law Enforcement Committee, told reporters following a closed-door meeting that Hungary purchased access to NSO's infamous spying software but that it only used it with permission from a judge or the Minister of Justice.

Kosa's reply, coming to a question from an ATV reporter, established Hungary in the unwanted role of being the first and only European country that is an NSO customer.

The bad reputation of being an NSO customer comes after the company's spyware has been linked to numerous human rights abuses in autocratic regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Uzbekistan, Morrocco, Turkey, and others.

Committee minutes classified until 2050

The Parliament committee, whose transcripts were sealed and classified until 2050 in a move that shocked Hungarian journalists this week, comes after a pan-global journalistic investigation unearthed that the Hungarian government used the Pegasus spyware to spy on local journalists, government critics, and opposition political figures.

More than 300 individuals in Hungary are believed to have been targeted, according to the investigation, published earlier this year, in July.

The revelation triggered widespread calls for a formal inquiry into the government's actions and even street protests across Budapest, Hungary's capital.

Throughout all of this, the government refused to officially confirm any of the investigation's findings, promising to look into the matter to establish facts.

Government tries to distance itself from Kosa's statement

But hours after Kosa's unexpected statements, following what was supposed to be a classified meeting, the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior tried to disavow and distance itself from the lawmaker's remarks.

"The Ministry of the Interior has never commented on or qualified the statements made by members of parliament after committee meetings," a spokesperson told local news outlet Telex.

The spokesperson also went on to add that Hungary does not carry out illegal surveillance.

However, this was the exact point that local press and opposing politicians were trying to obtain from these committee meetings — namely, if the ruling Fidesz party had abused its position in the government to "legally" authorize the use of Pegasus in cases where there was no reason to do so.

With the meeting's minutes being classified, such questions will remain unanswered, despite the Hungarian government holding a Parliamentary inquiry into the illegal spying accusations at the behest of its critics.

Kosa's admission that Hungary bought spyware from the NSO Group came a day after the US sanctioned the company for supplying the Pegasus spyware to foreign governments that then used it "to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers."

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Catalin Cimpanu

Catalin Cimpanu is a cybersecurity reporter for The Record. He previously worked at ZDNet and Bleeping Computer, where he became a well-known name in the industry for his constant scoops on new vulnerabilities, cyberattacks, and law enforcement actions against hackers.