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Turkish pandemic plan raises concerns over citizens' digital rights

In effort to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, Ankara launched a mobile app that tracks patients, raising concern among digital privacy advocates.
 A woman wearing a protective face mask waits for a train as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, Istanbul, Turkey, March 26, 2020. REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RC2ORF9R2BLO

ISTANBUL — As Turkey grapples with the fastest rising number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the world, two initiatives linked to Ankara’s coronavirus response are raising concern among privacy and free speech advocates.

On Wednesday, the Turkish Health Ministry, in cooperation with local cell service providers, launched an application to monitor the movement of patients diagnosed with the novel coronavirus through their smartphones. The Turkish presidency’s director of communications, Fahrettin Altun, said the app, known as the “Pandemic Isolation Tracking Project,” would seek to ensure COVID-19 patients were following quarantine measures.

Downloading the app is mandatory for all confirmed coronavirus patients, and those found to be leaving their homes will now receive automated text messages and calls asking them to return to predetermined quarantine areas.

Though a growing number of countries have introduced similar phone-tracking measures amid the pandemic and Turkish officials claim data used by the new app will be destroyed following the COVID-19 crisis, privacy advocates warn such digit monitoring tools could be easily abused for unrelated purposes.

“You need to firewall these apps from other uses so you don’t have these apps used by the police for other kinds of investigations,” Nate Schenkkan, director of special research at Freedom House, told Al-Monitor.

He added, “What kind of access will this software have on people’s phones to their data and their communications? It raises a huge number of questions.”

According to the presidency, “road control security teams” will be able to check citizens’ data to determine whether they are abiding by quarantine measures, and those who repeatedly fail to comply will face “necessary administrative measures.”

Similar issues have surfaced elsewhere. European Union nations are calling for a single COVID-19 tracking app to be used across the bloc that would safeguard privacy rights under the General Data Protection Regulation, and the European Data Protection Board adopted a statement in March to ensure the protection of personal data “even in exceptional times.”

Meanwhile, the Polish government introduced its own smartphone app using facial recognition technology. It requires COVID-19 patients to send a geolocated selfie from their quarantine areas within 20 minutes of receiving a text message.

In a separate measure introduced Thursday under a 66-article coronavirus economic aid package, international social media companies will need to appoint a representative and open an office in Turkey to handle complaints from Ankara.

The law would require social media companies with more than one million daily users in Turkey such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to comply with Ankara's media content policies or face significant bandwidth restrictions rendering the platforms unusable in the country.

Yaman Akdeniz, associate professor of law at Istanbul Bilgi University and a founder of the İfade Ozgurlugu Dernegi (the Freedom of Expression Association), said Turkish authorities have tried to compel social media platforms to open bureaus in Turkey since at least 2008.

“If they comply, then this will result in massive censorship and removal of content as well as the investigation and prosecution of a lot of users, as the authorities will have access to personal details of the social media users,” Akdeniz told Al-Monitor.

The Turkish Parliament is expected to review the bill next week and if passed, Akdeniz said it could lead to increased requests for social media account closures and access denials.

“This will have a massive chilling effect on social media usage in Turkey and self-censorship will increase while the authorities clamp down on critical voices and speech,” Akdeniz told Al-Monitor.

Both the mobile tracking app and social media bill come as Turkish officials work to contain the coronavirus and misleading information regarding the pandemic. On Tuesday, Turkey’s Interior Ministry announced 229 of 616 identified suspects had been detained for sharing “unfounded and provocative social media messages about the coronavirus.”

A letter from Turkey’s Foundations General Directorate was publicized Thursday indicating authorities were seeking to ban civil society organizations from holding digital meetings and other activities.

Since the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Turkey on March 11, health officials have recorded 42,282 cases of infection and 908 virus-linked deaths in the country.