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Hungarian government abused its databases to bombard citizens with political spam

Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz has exploited personal data stored in government databases to send political spam to citizens in this year’s parliamentary elections, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.

An 85-page Human Rights Watch (HRW) report said that Hungary’s nationalist government “repurposed” personal data it collected from citizens applying for public services to spread Fidesz campaign messages during the parliamentary elections in April.

Political spam was sent to people who used government websites to sign up for COVID-19 vaccines, apply for tax benefits, or register for mandatory membership in a professional association.

“Using people’s personal data collected so they could access public services to bombard them with political campaign messages is a betrayal of trust and an abuse of power,” said Deborah Brown, a senior technology researcher at HRW. “The Hungarian government should stop exploiting personal data for political campaigns and guarantee a level playing field for elections.”

HRW said that people did not have a choice to opt out of political messaging aimed at influencing the result of the elections in favor of the ruling party. It noted that the “data-driven” campaign helped ensure the fourth consecutive term in office for Fidesz and Hungary’s current Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Fidesz’s use of public databases to spread political spam showed that lines between government and ruling party resources were “blurred,” HRW said. Data-based campaigning is a common practice among parties across the political spectrum in Hungary.

It includes building detailed voter databases, online petitions and consultations to collect data, and direct outreach to voters via robocalls, bulk testing, and emails. It has significant human rights implications, the report said.

“In Hungary and elsewhere, electoral campaigns today rely heavily on data, often collected in non-transparent ways,” Brown said. “Governments, privacy and election experts, the tech industry, and others should ensure that data-driven campaigning does not undermine people’s privacy or their right to participate in a democratic election.”

The 2022 election campaign in Hungary was fraught with other abuses, according to international observers from the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

While the vote was well-managed and contestants could largely campaign freely, the government’s control of public institutions and the media meant voters could not make an informed choice, they said. The lack of transparency and insufficient oversight of campaign finances further benefited the ruling party, according to the OSCE.

Orban’s 12-year rule has seen Hungary backslide on democratic standards, and it is the only country in the EU ranked as “partly free” by the US-based Freedom House. In September, the European Parliament passed a resolution that said Hungary could no longer be considered a full democracy.

It follows a years-long dispute with the EU over the rule-of-law violations, with the bloc questioning the independence of the Hungarian courts, media, and NGOs. Budapest dismisses allegations as political.

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