In a further sign of how the Turkish government has escalated its campaign to criminalize secure digital communications, as part of a counterterrorism probe a Turkish prosecutor ordered an investigation into two suspects to determine if they used messaging applications and popular email service providers.
According to documents obtained by Nordic Monitor, Turkish prosecutor Serkan Beyoğlu in Turkey’s Mediterranean province of Antalya issued an order on October 7, 2016 asking the police department to investigate two suspects. The sweeping directive detailed specific provisions that included, inter alia, whether the suspects downloaded and used messaging applications such as Viber, Telegram, WhatsApp, Messenger, Tango, ByLock, Coco and other communication tools. He also instructed the police to ascertain if these two men used Gmail or Hotmail accounts and if so, provide the content of the emails.
The prosecutor’s extremely intrusive investigation directive was not limited to this. He also asked the police to look into the activity of the two men, identified as Mustafa Kökdal and İsa Zorbay, on Twitter and Facebook. Investigation case file No. 2016/48255 shows the victims were among hundreds of thousands of people who were investigated in Turkey on fabricated terrorism charges leveled by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan against members of the Gülen movement, a civic group that is critical of the president.
The Erdoğan government has been cracking down on the use of secure digital communications in Turkey on an ever-growing scale and has imprisoned tens of thousands of people for using the ByLock, Tango and Cacao messaging applications and other chat programs. The use of ByLock is deemed sufficient evidence to accuse defendants under counterterrorism laws. In most cases the matching IP/port numbers on ByLock servers with telecom carriers despite the lack of incriminating content is considered evidence of a serious crime in Turkey.
A total of 110,000 social media accounts were investigated, 7,109 social media users were detained and 2,754 of them were arrested in 2018 due to their posts, according to a statement from Turkey’s Security Directorate General issued in December 2018. The directorate said 2,828 of the social media users who were detained were released on judicial probation. Turkish police detain dozens and at times hundreds of people over their social media accounts every week.
Thousands of social media accounts and websites that are critical of Erdoğan and the government have been blocked by courts that are accused of acting on political orders from the government. The rule of law was effectively suspended in Turkey, with the judiciary completely subordinated to the executive branch following a mass purge of more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors, or one-third of the entire judicial staff in Turkey.
The Turkish government’s abuse of private digital communications has been highlighted in UN reports. David Kaye, the UN Freedom of Opinion and Expression special rapporteur, described the practice as the “criminalization of encryption” in a report released at a special session on Turkey during a UN Human Rights Council regular session in Geneva in 2017. The unlawful arrest of and pre-trial detention of Swedish IT consultant Ali Gharavi and non-violence and well-being trainer Peter Steudtner in 2017 while they were providing training for Turkish human rights defenders on secure communications was also seen as part of this crackdown on secure communications.
According to Twitter’s latest Transparency Report, which covered the July 1, 2017-Dec. 31, 2017 period, Turkey issued 466 court orders for removal requests, while the number for the rest of the world combined was 47. In other words, 91 percent of censorship requests in the form of court judgements came from only one country, Turkey, demonstrating how the Turkish judiciary has been politicized and subordinated to the executive branch of government.