A member of parliament from Hungary's ruling Fidesz party acknowledged for the first time Thursday that Hungary's Interior Ministry had purchased and used Pegasus spyware.
Lawmaker Lajos Kosa, who chairs the parliamentary defense and law enforcement committee, told a journalist after a closed committee hearing that "yes," Hungary had purchased Pegasus software from Israeli company NSO Group.
Kosa insisted the government had not used the malicious software to spy on Hungarians.
Pegasus spyware effectively turns cellphones into portable spying devices. It allows for its customers to seize control of the smartphone of a targeted individual, and turn on cameras and microphones without the phone's owner even being aware. It also grants access to photos, location data and other important information stored on the phone.
Pegasus parliamentary committee minutes classified until 2050
"I don't see anything objectionable in it," Kosa said after the committee hearing. He deflected by suggesting that "large tech companies carry out much broader monitoring of citizens than the Hungarian state does."
Sandor Pinter, the Hungarian interior minister, told Kosa's committee that the security services in Hungary only used Pegasus with the permission of either a judge or the Justice Ministry.
However, opposition legislator Agnes Vadai said Pinter refused to say whether journalists or politicians had been targeted by the Hungarian state with Pegasus spyware. She also noted that the minutes of Thursday's meeting were classified until 2050.
First confirmed EU country to use Pegasus
In July, an international consortium of journalists rolled out stories on the use of Pegasus spyware by governments worldwide. Hungary was the only EU country listed as being a client of NSO Group to purchase Pegasus.
The investigative journalists involved in the consortium also unearthed a list of targets, which included journalists, lawyers and other public figures.
Subsequent investigations by Direkt36, a Hungarian investigative journalism outlet, indicated that at least two publishers of media outlets critical of the government as well as a former state secretary were Hungarian government targets.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban had been unwilling to confirm whether the Hungarian government used Pegasus.
On Wednesday, the US Department of Commerce listed NSO Group on a blacklist of restricted companies responsible for the creation and dissemination of malicious software.
Pegasus spyware "enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression, which is the practice of authoritarian governments targeting dissidents, journalists and activists outside of their sovereign borders to silence dissent," the Commerce Department wrote in a press release.
In response, the NSO Group said the company's "technologies support US national security interests and policies by preventing terrorism and crime."
ar/nm (AFP, AP)