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If you’re using iMessage, here’s why the Turkish government might think you’re a spy

The latest arrest and deportation of foreign journalists reveals how misunderstood encryption technology is in Turkey.

The Aug. 27 arrests of two journalists and their translator in Turkey raised important questions about freedom of the press and human rights in the country. But it also brought to light issues about cybersecurity, privacy and a not-so-well-known concern: A lot of people who need to understand encryption software do not.

The two Vice News journalists, Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury, were released Sept. 3, but their Turkey-based Iraqi translator, Mohammed Ismael Rasool, is still locked up in a prison in Adana.

Many observers say the journalists were arrested to keep them from documenting clashes between the government and the youth wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). It was peculiar that the men initially were arrested for allegedly working with the Islamic State (IS) and later were accused of aiding the outlawed PKK. The basis for those accusations apparently was that the men were using the same Internet encryption software used by IS.

One Washington correspondent for a Turkish daily newspaper recently said on Twitter that he uses only open-source information and has nothing to hide, so he doesn't need encryption on his electronic devices. His baffled followers tried to explain what encryption is, why it is a necessity and how several services and gadgets provide it by default. This is just one of many examples that make it clear the concept is misunderstood among Turks.

While other Turkish media outlets were struggling to challenge the government on censorship, the right to encryption got lost in the bigger picture in Turkey. To understand the fine balance between online security and privacy in Turkey, Al-Monitor spoke with law enforcement officials, civilians who have been in custody multiple times for political charges, computer scientists and security experts. 

Remzi Seker, a cybersecurity professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, told Al-Monitor, “Encryption is a commodity. ... Using it makes someone a terrorist as much as using a safe does.” Other technology experts have likened encryption to curtains or the lock on a front door; drawing the curtains and locking doors do not make someone a criminal or mean that a person has something to hide from law enforcement.

Battles over encryption — a frontier of civil liberties and personal privacy — is a hot topic all around the world among private companies, civil rights groups and governments.

First, we must understand what encryption entails. There are two uses of encryption. One is called end-to-end encryption, which is used when correspondence doesn't need to be saved. As soon as the chat is deleted it is gone; it is not stored anywhere and cannot be retrieved by service providers. For example, Apple’s iMessage, as well as chat applications such as Telegram or Signal, provide end-to-end encryption. A quick Google search provides several other programs that use end-to-end encryption.

The second form of encryption involves encoding data on a storage medium. This method often involves using an encryption/decryption system on a device. This use may prevent anyone, except for the owner, from accessing the data and photo files on the gadget. Considering the amount of sensitive information easily uploaded on any tablet or phone, such as health or bank records, encryption becomes a necessity for regular people, rather than a fancy tool for high-rolling spies. Indeed, lawyers, journalists, medical doctors, financial advisers or anyone carrying information about their clients is also accountable for protecting this data. Security, confidentiality and privacy can fall prey to savvy hackers.

Governments are concerned that if left unmonitored, Internet activity could endanger public safety and national security. Experts argue that strong encryption systems make the world safer, although some do report that the costs of providing exceptional access to data by law enforcement can outweigh the benefits of encryption.

However, one senior police officer from Istanbul, who asked to remain anonymous, praised the help he receives from the virtual world. “[Now that] law enforcement is well-versed in the technological developments, we see that we are now much better equipped with incredible surveillance capabilities such as geolocation gadgets, GPS tracking tools, street cameras, meta-data collection, phone tapping and of course physical surveillance with clear voice and image capturing,” he told Al-Monitor. “[If] you ban one service, users will shift to foreign software. VPN [virtual private networks] and other proxies are heavily used [to skirt] the Twitter bans in Turkey.”

Murat Lostar, CEO and founder of Lostar Information Security, told Al-Monitor, “The situation is complicated in Turkey. Even the encrypted phones can be tapped by the government if needed. And some of the rules on technology date back to the Cold War. For example, to own a short-wave radio you need an official permit.”

A civil rights activist and Alevi Kurd who asked to remain anonymous explained to Al-Monitor, “I have been arrested eight times since 2001. I had a cellphone with me for the last five of these arrests. The police officers have grown increasingly aggressive about accessing my phone. I worry not what is on my phone, but what evidence they could plant against me. That is my fear.”

Cybersecurity expert Lostar worries about attacks on government software systems by hackers. Lostar told Al-Monitor, “The weakest link in the security chain for cybersafety of governmental systems is human resources. Given how much information is stored in [government] databases, I am concerned about a breach.”

Can Duruk, a privacy-conscious technologist from Silicon Valley, concurs with Lostar and emphasizes additional dangers that might await Turkish citizens.

“Imagine being a gay man in Turkey," Duruk said. "The only way to get an exemption from the military is to declare that you are actually gay, in writing. Now, who's to say that something similar to what happened in Poland with Operation Hyacinth won't happen in Turkey? Or, think about all the people who have actually participated in all the gay pride parades in Istanbul. Do people think that all those street cameras will work for them or against them now? They surely haven't helped much in the case of Berkin Elvan or Ali Ismail Korkmaz or many others [the young victims of the Gezi protests].”

Duruk, like other experts, was clear that encryption is a necessity. He said many journalists on Twitter enable people to communicate with them privately by using encryption that conceals their identities and the contents of their messages.

"I've seen very few journalists in Turkey do that or [who] even know what encryption can buy them," he said. "They can not only protect their sources, but also themselves.”

Given all these facts, one cannot help but wonder why encryption was portrayed as the reason the Vice News crew was arrested. One security expert who has worked with Turkish bureaucracy for more than three decades told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “My guess is the bureaucrat saw the word 'encrypted' and ran with it. I cannot know who this senior official is, but I can assure you it is not from the military or intelligence community, because those guys know this sort of explanation is just nonsense.” This case shows us not only that encryption is a necessity and much misunderstood in Turkey, but also that reporters should scrutinize and cross-check their sources rather than simply repeating statements.

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