New technology spells end for wiretapping

This makes it possible for mobiles to be safe enough to discuss national secrets without fear of interception.

New technology spells end for wiretapping
It's the stuff the best spy stories are made of, the broadsheets this week had a small story in their technology sections about the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) National Institute for Electronics and Encryption Research (UEKAE) having developed a completely original software package that allows mobile phones to be encrypted.

This makes it possible for mobiles to be safe enough to discuss national secrets without fear of interception. This type of protection is, officials at TÜBİTAK say, especially vital in the field of military communication when phone calls intercepted by foreign agencies could have potentially fatal consequences for soldiers in the field.
According to TÜBİTAK's February press statement, they have been working on the technology for 20 years and it will be offered first to Turkey's army and then to the public and private companies. This software, they say, will put Turkey in the top league of countries for protecting information and privacy. There will be many for whom the encrypted cell phone has come not a moment too soon and others who are already regretting the development.

Article 22 of the 1982 Turkish Constitution states: "Secrecy of communication is fundamental. Communication shall not be impeded nor its secrecy be violated," but also adds: "Exceptions necessitated by judiciary investigation and prosecution are reserved." There are severe penalties for those who tap phones, ranging from one to four years in jail, but the punishments have done little to deter police and secret services in the past. Güneri Cıvaoğlu, a columnist for daily Milliyet, coined the phrase Büyük Kulak (Big Ear) to describe the activities of the shadowy state surveillance operatives in the late 1990s and claimed in 1996 that the right to individual privacy was "practically raped in Turkey."

During those years the use of bugging devices was largely unregulated. Opposition leader Mesut Yılmaz complained in 1998 that not only were his telephones tapped but the walls of his house were bugged. At the end of the 1990s, Parliament established a committee to investigate allegations of government phone taps. The 50-page report published in 1999 confirmed long-held suspicions that the Security Directorate had established a listening center on the eighth floor of their building and were able to listen in on all telephone communications, including mobile calls. The report logged 963 people whose conversations had been illegally tapped between May 1998 and May 1999, including the president, the prime minister, the army commander-in-chief, the defense minister, the national security department, deputies, journalists, the CEOs of large companies, the head of state security, the head of security for İstanbul, union officials, judges and even artists.

As a result of the investigation, 21 police officers of varying levels of seniority were tried for illegal phone bugging and accused of violating the right to free speech and establishing a "tapping gang." Eleven security officers were removed from their posts. At his trial in October 1999, the assistant director of Ankara's Security and Intelligence agency, Osman Ak, defended himself and his coworkers saying: "Gang, moles, thieves, rascals, tele-ears, big ears -- they said all these things. They called us the eighth floor gang. What did we do on the eighth floor? We're not the eighth floor gang, we're the eighth floor heroes." He was ultimately released because of "lack of evidence." Though the report condemned unauthorized phone taps it also pointed out that selective secret bugging of phones in Turkey had enabled the Security Directorate to thwart 33 assassination attempts since 1995.

Wiretapping scandals continued into the early part of 21st century. In 2000, one of the chairmen of the Supreme Court of Appeals, Judge Naci Ünver, sued the Interior Ministry after discovering his office phone was bugged. The ministry derided the judge, saying his claims that his personal freedom and the independence of the judiciary were threatened were "obscure and pointless." To add insult to injury, they added that the police had only listened, not taped, so there was no criminal offence.

As a concession to the judge, the interior minister said new guidelines concerning punishment for wiretaps would be issued, but they never appeared -- and more high-level complaints quickly came. In April 2001, the İstanbul security director was accused of wiretapping the İstanbul governor's telephone calls. In May 2001, the Foreign Ministry launched an investigation following reports that its phones were being tapped. The parliament speaker also expressed concern about the alleged surveillance of a deputy from the Motherland Party (ANAVATAN) and referred the matter to the State Security Court (DGM).

The Interior Ministry continued to protest its innocence, but in June 2001, it bowed to pressure and established a delegation of three chief inspectors from the Security Directorate General to determine whether officials had been abusing their authority (set a thief to catch a thief?). A few months later, in October 2001, in a move aimed at improving its chances of accession to the European Union, Turkey passed the Constitutional Amendment Bill, containing 34 proposals for amendment to the Constitution. Several of the proposals strengthened the basic rights and freedoms of individuals, including increased protection for privacy of the person and the home. In 2004, further EU sweeteners were enacted by the Telecommunications Authority, which passed regulations on the security and privacy of communications similar to the EU's 1997 directive on data protection in electronic communications.

The security services, though, have been fighting back; in July 2006 a law permitting government approved wiretaps came into effect, allowing the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), the gendarme and the police to monitor phone conversations providing they obtained permission from the Telecommunications Directorate. The pressure continued and in a letter, probably deliberately leaked to the media by Minister Abdullatif Şener in early 2007, MİT Undersecretary Emre Taner complained about the difficulties the national intelligence community was facing because of existing legislation against phone tapping and eavesdropping. He requested an amendment in the law to enhance the agency's eavesdropping power. Only a few months later, following deadly bombings in Ankara in May 2007, the government proposed a law enforcement bill that allowed police to have even ordinary citizens work for the police force for information gathering purposes. Some lawyers say it represents the largest expansion of police authority ever.

Neither the police nor the state security forces seem prepared to give up listening and they have an even stronger partner in crime -- the army. Both the gendarme and the armed forces themselves operate wiretapping networks and the intelligence they gather is not necessarily released to civilian authorities, particularly if they are listening to one of their own. The army hoards its information and often ties the hands of the civilian authorities as a result. Early this year the state department arrested members of the Ergenekon gang, who had been planning a coup against the government, and one of their leaders was Ret. Gen. Veli Küçük. It is widely rumored that they were unable to act on intelligence they had gathered until the army agreed to the arrests and to pass on information that they had independently gathered. No amount of civil regulation can ensure the right to privacy can succeed while the nation's largest independent force refuses to be bound by it. TÜBİTAK's offer to send its wonder phone to the army will probably be eagerly accepted and then will disappear off the civilian radar. After all, if the left hand knows what the right hand is doing, someone else might find out!

Today's Zaman
Güncelleme Tarihi: 26 Şubat 2008, 12:43