Hungary’s Secret Police

Paul Krugman turned his column over today to Kim Lane Schepple, who gives us a rundown of Hungary’s counter-terrorism police. Schepple characterizes TEK, a 2010 creation of the conservative Fidesz party, as a unit that is quickly becoming Prime Minister Viktor Orbán “own secret police,” possessing ” truly Orwellian powers, including virtually unlimited powers of secret surveillance and secret data collection.”

Schepple’s enumeration of TEK’s powers:

TEK now has the legal power to secretly enter and search homes, engage in secret wiretapping, make audio and video recordings of people without their knowledge, secretly search mail and packages, and surreptitiously confiscate electronic data (for example, the content of computers and email)….There are no legal limits on how long this data can be kept…

TEK agents don’t have to go to a judge for permission to spy on someone – they only need the approval of the justice minister to carry out such activities…

…TEK now has had the legal authority to collect personal data about anyone by making requests to financial companies (like banks and brokerage firms), insurance companies, communications companies (like cell phone and internet service providers) – as well as state agencies. Data held by state agencies include not only criminal and tax records but also educational and medical records – and much more. Once asked, no private company or state agency may refuse to provide data to TEK.

…their data requests no longer had to be tied to criminal investigations or be approved by the prosecutor. In fact, they have virtually no limits on what data they can collect and require no permission from anyone.

If an organization (like an internet service provider, a bank or state agency) is asked to turn over personally identifiable information, the organization may not tell anyone about the request. People whose data have been turned over to TEK are deliberately kept in the dark.

The term “secret police” carries a particular history in Hungary, where the bad works of the Nazi-affiliated Arrow Cross Party and then the Soviet KGB-affiliated AVH spilled enough blood to fill Budapest’s House of Terror museum at Andrássy út 60.

Travel writer Ashley Sytsma published a piece in December 2011 where she wrings her hands asking whether the tight surveillance she experienced in Georgia (the one next to Russia, not Alabama) was a matter of National Security or Police State.  What is it that makes the phrase “secret police” stickier in describing some places than others?  Specific practices, history, or something else?

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