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Turkey: Report of state telecoms agency collecting user data raises alarm

Outrage follows revelation that internet providers give private user information to Information and Communication Technologies Authority
A person uses a laptop computer showing a Turkish flag on 27 March 2014 in Istanbul (AFP)

Privacy campaigners have expressed outrage following revelations that Turkey's state telecoms agency has been collecting hourly data from virtually all internet users in the country for more than a year.

Based on a document seen by the Turkish media outlet Medyascope, the Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) ordered internet service providers (ISPs) in Turkey to hand over internet data, as a "legal and preventative measure".

Information on WhatsApp communications, emails, website usage and time spent on them, phone calls and location data have all been shared on an hourly basis with BTK, according to the report.

It added that while the actual content of emails and WhatsApp messages would not be available to the BTK, it was possible to determine sender and receiver.

The document, which was signed by BTK vice chairman Fethi Azakli and is dated from December 2020, was apparently addressed to Turkish ISPs.

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"There is a need to obtain more detailed information in the legal and preventive scope regarding the activities that take place in the internet environment, which is gaining more and more place in our daily lives," read the document.

It also threatens penalties against ISPs if they fail to provide data to the BTK.

Sources within a number of ISPs told Medyascope, on condition of anonymity, that their companies began transferring data to the BTK in 2021.

Although Turkey passed a data protection law in 2016 that nominally prohibited the processing or storing of personal data without consent from the subject, it allowed for exceptions, including on the grounds of national security.

Middle East Eye contacted Vodafone, Turkcell and Turk Telekom, the three biggest ISPs in Turkey in terms of subscribers, for comment, but none had responded at time of publication.

MEE also contacted the BTK for a comment, but also received no response.

Snowden comparisons

In a series of tweets in June, Onursal Adiguzel, an MP for the opposition Republican People's Party, had raised concerns about the BTK's collection of internet users' data, comparing it to the revelations from American whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 about mass surveillance programmes run by the US National Security Agency.

"Something similar to this has been carried out in Turkey by the BTK for a while," he wrote.

"The president of BTK requests the log records and subscriber pattern structure from 313 internet provider companies with a 'confidential' letter."

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Karabekir Akkoyunlu, a visiting scholar at the International Relations Institute, University of Sao Paulo, told MEE that the revelations around data collection were just the latest example of an increasingly intrusive surveillance state in Turkey.

"It's part of a longer sort of process of the government increasing its surveillance and breaching basic principles of private data protection," he said.

"I would put it in the wider sort of global temporal perspective: you have the internet and social media initially emerging as a supposedly democratising space, allowing citizens to have more freedom and even confronting state authority. But then, over the last decade, we saw that governments have been catching up with this technology."

He added that while there had been pushback against these kinds of measures, many civil society organisations had lost the will to fight, particularly as brutal economic crisis continues to make life harder for many ordinary Turkish citizens.

"There's a sense of hopelessness. And there is a sort of, one would say, you know, just being overwhelmed by the number of things they need to pay attention to," he said.

"We have so many civil society actions that can push back and the repression is tighter, so it's just tougher to go out  and protest against these things and, of course, the economic crisis sort of shadows everything else."

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