It was widely reported in the Hungarian press yesterday that Israeli-based NSO Group, the maker of Pegasus spyware, terminated its contract with the Hungarian government. This would mean it could no longer use the technology that was reportedly used against Hungarian domestic actors and blew up into a major scandal over the summer. But Telex now writes that the latest news may actually not be true.
The news of NSO’s breaking its contract with Hungary stemmed from Polish newspaper Wyborcza on Monday, which revealed that the Polish government may have obtained Pegasus itself.
The Wyborcza article touches upon Hungary in two areas. At one point, the authors write that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło, and then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu possibly agreed at a V4 meeting in Budapest that Hungary and Poland would be able to use Pegasus.
The other part in the article that concerned Hungary was derived from a Swiss newspaper, Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), published in German. The article in Wyborzcz mentions that the NSO had revoked its spyware license from Hungary and Poland in reference to the NZZ article.
But Telex notes that the article in NZZ refers to an article that appeared in CTech last November, which claimed that the Israeli Ministry of Defense had radically limited the number of countries with which Israeli cyber security companies could work with, but said nothing about existing contracts.
In other words, NSO did not decide on its own to limit its business activities, and moreover, it is not clear whether the decision also applies to existing contracts. So it is not certain that NSO actually terminated its contract with Hungary, although Telex appears doubtful due to standard penalties that would be applicable in such a case.
The news site points out that Népszava, who first reported the news in Hungary, and 444 both issued corrections yesterday when the news about the Swiss newspaper’s article came to light.
In response to an inquiry from Telex, the Ministry of the Interior did not confirm or deny the news.
Countries that provide the public with information about intelligence, counter-intelligence, and reconnaissance technologies that they may or may not be using reduces those very capabilities. The Ministry of the Interior is ready to answer such questions at a closed session of the National Security Committee in the National Assembly, as it has already done.
-the ministry answered in a written response.
The NSO Group also responded to Telex with a statement reading:
For contractual and national security reasons, the NSO Group does not deal with, confirm, or deny the identity of any of its customers.
Back in July, investigative outlet Direkt36 broke the news that spy software developed by the NSO Group was being used against opposition politicians, businessmen, journalists, and students, although it had been ostensibly developed for use against suspected terrorists, cybercriminals, and criminal organizations. The spyware was found on the devices of several journalists, civil activists, and economic actors critical of the government, but also on the phone of President János Áder’s bodyguard as well as a pilot for the Fidesz elite.
Although the government dodged the issue for months, Fidesz politician Lajos Kósa acknowledged to a journalist in November that the Hungarian government had acquired the spyware. Interior Minister Sándor Pintér, however, told a visiting delegation from the European Parliament to Budapest that the use of Pegasus spyware was completely within the law.