Big Brother is Back (3/02)

Falling in line behind other industrialized Western nations at the end of 2001, Hungary pushed through an anti-terrorism package containing a host of new measures and regulations intended to aid in the so-called global effort to combat terrorism. Although the government wanted to speed the measures through parliament, the opposition did slow them down somewhat. But the motivation wasn’t genuine concern about privacy and such; rather, it was just an opportune time to score some feeble political points.

In the end, most of what the government wanted was rushed through anyway.

As elsewhere in Europe and North America, the changes – and the fact that they’ve been imposed with little or no consultation – are cause for great concern. While some items were made public (in a limited way), others were implemented without any notice. Although details are scant, Hungary’s anti-terrorism “reforms” look much like those adopted elsewhere in Europe and abroad.

On the surface, the new laws update regulations on extradition, money laundering, granting asylum, and domestic surveillance. But, as in the US and other Western “democracies,” Hungary’s “anti-terrorism” blueprint also gives law enforcement agencies broad powers to intercept communication, focusing primarily on tapping both fixed line and mobile phones. The power to eavesdrop on Internet communications, particularly e-mail, also has been greatly expanded.

As a result, Hungarian law enforcement agencies will have much wider latitude in collecting and evaluating information about people and their movements, information that will be “harmonized” with material from other European countries. With the ability to share data between different agencies – even different countries – Europol (the European Union police force) will be able to build a comprehensive and centralized store of intercepted data.

This is welcome news for Eurocrats, since the European Union had already set up a parallel program, designed specifically to track the movement of people in response to the anti-globalization protests of recent years. Known as the Schengen Information System (SIS), it contains a database to target suspected protesters. Once tagged with an “alert” on the SIS, these “targeted suspects” will be barred from entering a country where protests or economic meetings are planned.

While European governments invariably use Sept. 11 to justify such measures, the plans were well underway before that. What the attacks on the US changed, however, was the urgency and ease with which such measures have been forced through the parliaments of Europe – usually with little or no debate.

Consequently, in order to be a part of the EU, Hungary and other accession countries have been forced to keep a closer watch on their citizens. And, as with anti-terrorism packages elsewhere, the Hungarian measures fail to provide adequate safeguards – if any – against abuse.

Most experts agree that judicial and parliamentary accountability is essential. Still, thanks to an atmosphere of deep anxiety that sometimes crosses the border into hysteria, repression has prevailed over the need to protect privacy. For Hungary and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, however, it’s not concern about terrorism in the region that has motivated governments, but rather fear of another kind. If they don’t fall into step with the US and Western Europe, the chances of quick entry into the EU will be compromised. In addition, there’s the threat of sanctions.

Hungary is widely seen as the money laundering capital of Central and Eastern Europe, and the EU has set guidelines regarding the financial regulations of member states and accession countries. If countries fail to abide by these guidelines, sanctions will be imposed. Hungary has been singled out because of things like anonymous bank accounts, and the time to comply has already expired.

For most privacy advocates, however, rules about anonymous bank accounts aren’t the big worry. Most of what the public knows about the anti-terrorism package sounds benign enough; the real concerns center on what’s unknown and under-reported. For instance, little has been said about measures adopted to tackle “computer crime.” Yet, it’s obvious that the government is moving in the direction of the US, where “on-line graffiti” – that is, hacking into Websites and defacing web pages, a form of civil disobedience practiced by groups such as the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) as a peaceful means of protest – is equated with terrorism and could lead to life imprisonment. EDT developed “virtual-sit in” technologies in 1998 in solidarity with the Zapatista communities in Chiapas, Mexico.

In addition to anti-terror legislation, use of surveillance cameras has also increased. A plan to put a police presence on every Hungarian street corner has proceeded steadily and quietly over the past few years. This program has led to the installation of thousands of cameras, aimed at residential areas, shopping centers, transportation networks, car parks, hospital sites, and other public spaces.

The argument for surveillance cameras is that they’re effective in the fight against crime. Yet, in countries such as the UK that have turned to closed circuit television (CCTV) surveillance, recent crime rate statistics don’t support the argument that cameras help. In fact, the British are struggling to deal with what is commonly regarded as “rampant” juvenile crime. As a result, UK police plan to use a new database program to monitor children who “may” become criminals. The idea is to prevent them from developing into full-fledged lawbreakers.

As with anti-terrorism legislation to monitor communications, CCTV activities haven’t been subjected to any form of regulation or oversight. No independent body watches the watchers. It’s a familiar story: Hungary’s police are in charge of monitoring their own potential abuses. Making matters worse, no signs inform people that an area is being monitored, something that would probably do more to deter crime than the cameras themselves.

It is often argued that the Sept. 11 attacks provided an excuse for cracking down on civil liberties. But most of the anti-terrorism initiatives adopted by Hungary’s government were in the works before that; the installation of CCTVs in Budapest and other large cities were also well underway. At this point, the extent to which Big Brother makes his triumphant return to former communist countries may depend largely on whether people allow public anxiety and complacency to persist. If repression continues to escalate and take hold, the democratic transformation that millions fought to achieve could still be reversed – sacrificed in the name of “national security.”

John Horvath is a TF contributing writer covering Europe and corresponding author for the on-line zine Telepolis ( in Germany. He can be reached at