The invasive spyware allows its operator to take control of a target’s mobile device, access all data, even from encrypted messaging apps, and turn on audio or video recording. It is only meant for use against terrorists and serious criminals, but the Pegasus Project revealed that Hungary appeared to be one of many countries where the tool was being abused.
At the time, the Hungarian government deflected questions about whether it had used Pegasus to spy on the named individuals, and refused to confirm whether it had acquired the spyware. However, in November a senior government official acknowledged for the first time that Hungary had indeed acquired Pegasus.
Now the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) has announced it will launch legal action on behalf of six clients: Brigitta Csikász, Dávid Dercsényi, Dániel Németh and Szabolcs Panyi, all journalists; Adrien Beauduin, a Belgian-Canadian PhD student and activist; and a sixth person who requested anonymity.
“It is unacceptable that the operations of the national security services, which are necessarily carried out in secret, should become a tool of oppression rather than a means of protecting citizens,” said Ádám Remport, of the HCLU.
The HCLU will pursue various legal avenues, including complaints to the ministers overseeing the secret services in Hungary, requests to the security services to divulge information, and legal action in the courts.
“What we would like is for our clients to have direct evidence of their being surveilled and the disclosure of the data gathered on them,” said Remport. “If we can get good rulings it would mean that a new avenue for redress would open for anyone who has been secretly surveilled.”
Remport admitted that previous case law suggested that the courts usually sided with the security services, and that the cases were likely to take months if not years to proceed through the courts. However, the Hungarian legal action could become a template for victims of unlawful surveillance in other countries.
The HCLU and Eitay Mack, an Israeli lawyer, will also file a demand to the Israeli attorney general asking for a criminal case to be opened against NSO in Israel and the Israeli officials who approved the sale to Viktor Orbán’s government.
“They should have known from the beginning the deteriorating situation in Hungary, and that targeting the press is a main activity of the Orbán regime,” said Mack, who said he wanted them charged with violating Israeli wiretapping and privacy laws, among others. He pointed to a 2016 ruling of the European court of human rights that criticised the use of surveillance in Hungary.
NSO Group did not respond to a request for comment, but in previous answers to the Guardian it said it could not confirm or deny whether particular countries were clients. It also insisted its tools were only meant for use against criminals and terrorists and should not be used on dissidents, activists or journalists.
“The international community should have zero-tolerance policy towards such acts, therefore a global regulation is needed. NSO has proven in the past it has zero tolerance for these types of misuse by terminating multiple contracts,” the company said.
Panyi, an investigative journalist with the Hungarian outlet Direkt36, which was a partner on the Pegasus Project, was targeted with Pegasus on numerous occasions, according to forensic analysis of his phone. He said the case was a symbolic one that was more about trying to force reform of the system of authorising surveillance in Hungary than getting any personal justice.
“Infringing my right to protect my sources is the most troubling thing for me,” Panyi said. “It’s very hard to understand the true aim, whether they were after my sources, if they wanted to get a heads up on what I’m working on, or try to gather dirt on me.”
He said he hoped that as a result of the case he might find out more about why he was targeted. “I would at least like to receive some information about which agency was surveilling me, when and why,” he said.