Turkey, Iran find opportunity in WhatsApp crisis

Local messaging applications can facilitate intrusion, espionage and monitoring of citizens under the pretext of “national alternatives” to WhatsApp.
Thursday 14/01/2021
Ahmet Hamdi Atalay, general manager and CEO of Havelsan, promoting his company’s application. (ANA)
Ahmet Hamdi Atalay, general manager and CEO of Havelsan, promoting his company’s application. (ANA)

ANKARA--Turkey is doing everything in its power to take advantage of renewed scrutiny on popular message application WhatsApp, which recently imposed new conditions on its users, to draw its citizens to a locally developed application.

Ankara is trying to persuade millions of Turks to subscribe to local application Havelsan, which human rights organisations and the media are concerned could be used to help Turkish authorities tighten their grip on internet censorship and spy on users.

The Turkish move coincides with similar Iranian steps to build a “national internet” enabling authorities to tighten control of internet use under the pretext of resisting Western propaganda.

On Monday, the Turkish Competition Authority announced it had opened an investigation into WhatsApp’s decision to share more user data with its parent company, Facebook.

Last week, the encrypted messaging app asked more than one billion users outside the European Union and Britain to accept the new terms or lose access to WhatsApp starting February 8.

On Tuesday, WhatsApp tried to reassure its users, many of whom had moved to the two competing apps Signal and Telegram.

“We want to be clear that the policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way. Instead, this update includes changes related to messaging a business on WhatsApp, which is optional, and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data,” WhatsApp wrote in the “Security and Privacy” section on its website.

Many Turkish state institutions have switched to the local Havelsan application, which is said to provide practical solutions to instant messaging and communication needs. The Turkish app is produced by a government company specialising in defense-related electronic communications.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said that the Turkish application “provides practical solutions for secure communications, given that it uses advanced programs capable of protecting communications and data from electronic attacks.”

But Turkish analysts said that Anadolu ‘s presentation of the app contains many exagerations that conceal threats to users’ privacy and vulnerability to espionage.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has fought many battles with social media platforms in an attempt to subject them to censorship, either through blocking them or imposing fines on their operations, especially through measures stipulated by a recent law that strengthens local control over foreign companies.

The new law requires major social media companies, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to have representation in Turkey to deal with complaints against content posted on their platforms. If these companies refuse to appoint official representatives, the legislation imposes heavy fines on the companies, bans advertisements and reduces bandwidth.

In the footsteps of Turkey, Iran is building a “national internet” that would make authorities the ultimate gatekeeper  of communications in the country and the “chief spy” on Iranian citizens.

Tehran also aims to use its national internet network to plant content compatible with the hard-line faction that controls the country, and to prevent social media platforms from being used to mobilise the public to protest against economic and social policies and the regime’s investment in wars.

Iranian state media published parts of its “national internet” plan a few weeks after it was approved by the Supreme Council of Iranian Cyberspace, in a move that would isolate Iranians from the global internet.

The plan would “create an internal search engine, messaging applications, an internal social network, registration of activists, an internal operating system, an internal email and an internal browser.” It also aims to enhance the ability of security agencies and judicial bodies to control information.

Authorities are deeply concerned about the impact of social media platforms on the public, especially youth. Such sites were viewed as the main drivers of protests in 2017 and 2019.