Hungary on the way towards Orwell’s 1984?

Hungary on the way towards Orwell’s 1984?

During the past few months the world has been focused on NSA snooping as well as the drama that surrounded Edward Snowden. This has caused some things, smaller in scope but equally vital for the privacy of people, to pass with little or no notice. One of them are recent amendments to the Hungarian national security law. Regarding these law changes there was almost no major media response outside of Hungary (with exeption of Aljazeera). The first news in major media was on Paul Krugman’s New York Times blog, where they published the renowned economist Kim Lane Sheppele’s observations about this law.

In short, the proposed amendments of the National security law enables the government to monitor all public officers inside and outside their offices (also including their homes and families). According to Scheppele, the amendments enable people at the top of the government to legally spy on all people that hold important public offices. These officers (and their spouses) must “consent” to being observed for potentially twice a year for a duration of maximum 30 days per time, of course, they would not know when they are under surveillance. If the officials do not “consent” to being observed they lose their jobs. The people at the very top of the government are exempt from this surveillance. Being under surveillance does not mean that someone is suspected of doing something illegal. Any reason would do. All gathered information from the surveillance may be stored for 20 years.

These amendments clearly mean that people inside the government decide whom to observe and who is a threat to national security. Currently, the government is controlled by the conservative political party ‘Fidesz’, which practically means that ‘Fidesz’ decides who they consider to be a threat to national security (or themselves). The above mentioned amendments can be used effectively against  political opponents inside of the public sector, all depending on your definition of “national security”.

Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), a non-profit human rights watchdog NGO, pointed out in its legal opinion about the matter (in Hungarian). They said that “even though national security may be considered a valid interest to create restrictions to rights of private life, the limitations must be proportionate and necessary. In HCLU’s point of view the amendments in question breach fundamental privacy rights.”

The core issue is that the “law implements the framework for twice-a-year, up to 30 days each time, secret surveillance of senior government personal, staff at the national security services and heads of the police as part of ongoing national security monitoring.” This kind of surveillance includes monitoring of personal communication (wire-tapping of phones, accessing electronic communication and correspondence by postas well as AV recording in private homes. It is subject to approval by the minister in charge of justice (meaning, that no judicial warrant is needed).

The initiation of background check, ordered by supervisors, could be based only on suspicion. There is no guidance as to what suspicious activity they need to look for, making it a very subjective decision. It is up to every individual supervisor to decide if surveillance of an individual is needed.

One of the most severe conditions of this law is that the individual officer’s behavior outside the office can be seen as a threat of national security and thereby a reason for dismissal from office. But lacking guidance as to what suspicious activity consitutes, the reason for dismissal can be anything. 

The PP Hungary did not release an official statement on this law, but as our source said, this law fits in perfectly with the authoritarian measures the current government has been taking. Still, the main concern of the local Pirates about this is that at a time when requesting information about government spending is becoming increasingly harder and the people have no way of forcing any transparency out of the government, people themselves are becoming not only transparent but spied on by their government. Our source also stressed, that government surveillance does have an effect on people’s lives, despite the law at question not having passed, and that it is easy to tell that nationalist values and being unnaturally conservative is now regarded as good qualities in contrast with liberalism and a modern way of thinking and behaving. The amendments were adopted in parliament on 21 May 2013 with support from the governing coalition and nationalist party ‘Jobbik’. Máté Szabó, Hungary’s ombudsman, expressed his concerns publicly and turned to the constitutional court for a constitutional review.

Fanny Hidvégi from HCLU said, that constitutional court has not decided on the issue yet and there is no public information on the schedule after October. She empasized that “the general reaction of the government to negative Constitutional Court decisions is that they amend the Fundamental law itself (the Constitution), incorporating the regulation in question to the text. Therefore, the Court won’t have possibilities to interfere since it is not entitled to examine the constitutionality of the Fundamental law itself.”

Featured image: CC-BY-NC-ND, gureu