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Türk Telekom surveillance plans unacceptable, says civil society

Türk Telekom surveillance plans unacceptable, says civil society

Türk Telekom is the leading telecommunications service provider in Turkey.

July 09, 2014, Wednesday/ 12:13:25/ E. BARIŞ ALTINTAŞ / ISTANBUL
Ten civil society organizations made a statement on Wednesday drawing attention to alleged censorship by Türk Telekom, which has reportedly bought equipment it will use to tighten its control over the Internet and service providers.

According to the statement, Turkey's giant telecommunications company would be violating fundamental freedoms protected by the Constitution if it went ahead with the planned censorship and monitoring.

The information-sector organizations issued a declaration with the title “Türk Telekom is committing a constitutional offense,” and warned the institution about the violation of the right to information and other fundamental freedoms.

According to media reports, Türk Telekom bought special technological equipment that will allow the company to assume more control over the Internet and social media networks. The equipment would enable the company to monitor social media networks such as WhatsApp and Skype, services that allow mobile phone users to send each other messages. Furthermore, the company will be able to block access to certain websites.

The organizations participating in the declaration included the Alternative Information Association, the Ankara Bar Association's Information Office, the Democratic Computer Engineers, the Chamber of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, the Association of Internet Broadcasters (AIB), the Pirate Party, the Association of Linux Users, the Association of Pardus Users and the Association of Librarians.

The organizations said Türk Telekom's decision to tighten its grip over the Internet with these technologies goes against fundamental principles of law as well as fundamental human rights and freedoms.

“Türk Telekom will be able to control all message services like WhatsApp, Lime, Telegram, CoverMe, Google+, Tango, ICQ, Instant Messaging, Jabber, Open MMS, Skype and Messenger through Internet protocols and the service providers. Similarly, access to websites like Spotflux, Hotspot VPN, Mobile VPN and Safe Tun, which were already banned by Türk Telekom, will be totally blocked, as the users were able to access these websites through alternative service providers.”

The joint declaration also emphasized that such control over the Internet is a threat to constitutional freedoms and rights, adding, “Trying to suppress Internet freedom and aiming to solve problems by blocking content Türk Telekom does not like is extremely wrong.”

Türk Telekom has released a statement regarding the allegations, saying it was undertaking all its activities within the framework of the law. It did not deny having bought new equipment capable of eavesdropping on private conversations on the Internet.

On Feb. 20, Parliament passed a new law on the Internet, which extended the executive power of the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) over Internet censorship. The law was criticized for its potential to stifle freedom of expression both by national and international civil society groups. Under the law, TİB can block websites that violate privacy without seeking a court warrant.

In March, Turkey banned Twitter, hours after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his disapproval on the media site, where several users shared leaked conversations from voice recordings that seemed to support corruption allegations leveled at the government. YouTube was also banned briefly, after another leaked conversation was posted on the website. Constitutional Court rulings overturned the bans.

Öztürk Türkdoğan, head of the Human Rights Association (İHD), told Today's Zaman that the controversial law on the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) made it clear that the organization can use the infrastructure of Türk Telekom. He said: “Changes to the MİT law allow MİT to use the infrastructure of Türk Telecom and access information from all banks. There is no longer such a thing as a private life in Turkey. With the new MİT law, GSM operators, Internet operators and communications companies have to share information with MİT.”

The MİT law entered into force on April 26 after it was approved by President Abdullah Gül. It has been criticized widely for giving sweeping powers to the intelligence agency, and many say it will turn Turkey into an “intelligence state.” Many domestic and international organizations, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), have expressed concern over the law.

Under the law, journalists and editors who publish leaked intelligence material could be given prison sentences of up to nine years. The law allows MİT to conduct operations against possible overseas threats as designated by the Cabinet. MİT will not be accountable for such operations; all responsibility will lie with the civilian government. MİT will have unfettered access to the archives and databases of every government ministry and will be able to collect enormous amounts of data on citizens. The law also requires private companies to hand over consumer data and technical equipment upon the agency's request.

T24's Füsun Sarp Nebil in a column she wrote on July 5 that the gadget, bought from Sekom, the Turkish office of Procera Networks, was specifically designed for eavesdropping on many communications mediums. She noted that the tender specifications for the device bought by Türk Telekom can be used for listening in on conversations held on many apps such as WhatsApp and Skype. She noted that Türk Telekom has not denied having bought the device. She further commented: “This appears to be a political decision, rather than an operator's own initiative. No operator would willingly buy such a device that might lead to many legal issues.”

Nebil also wrote that Türk Telekom has a de facto monopoly over the Internet in Turkey. Even if a user opts for another operator, they will still be using the infrastructure provided by Türk Telekom. In other words, there is no escape from the government's intelligence network. She also noted that although Türk Telekom appears to be a private company on paper, it is a well-known fact that its executives and even employees include the relatives, friends and cronies of the government. She said in the private sector, there was a tongue-in-cheek phrase used by industry professionals: “Türk Telekom used to belong to the state, and now it belongs to the government.” Nebil said Türk Telekom's recent move indicates that this expression may have some truth to it.
 
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