Statewatch press release: “Turkey: Algorithmic persecution based on massive privacy violations used to justify human rights abuses”

Press release

Turkey: Algorithmic persecution based on massive privacy violations used to justify human rights abuses, says new report

More than 13,000 Turkish military personnel have been dismissed since July 2016 on the basis of an algorithm used by the authorities to assess the alleged “terrorist” credentials or connections of military officers and their relatives in violation of multiple human rights, says a new report published today by Statewatch. [1]

The algorithm, known as the ‘FETÖ-Meter’, is based on 97 main criteria and 290 sub- criteria, [2] many of which violate individual privacy. It was deployed following the July 2016 coup attempt in order to root out alleged followers of the cleric Fethullah Gülen.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been profiled and assigned a ‘score’ by the algorithm, which is operated by a special unit called ‘The Office of Judicial Proceedings and Administrative Action’ (ATİİİŞ in Turkish acronym) within the Turkish Navy.

The report, which includes testimonies from several high-ranking former military officers who have since sought asylum in the EU, highlights that application of the algorithm has been arbitrary and underpinned punitive measures not only against primary suspects, but anyone in their social circles, including their family members, colleagues, and neighbours.

The report’s authors, Dr. Emre Turkut and Ali Yildiz, argue that the FETÖ-Meter system therefore gives rise to a dangerous standard of guilt by association, in flagrant violation of many fundamental human rights and principles of modern criminal law.

The ATİİİŞ obtained the sensitive personal data of at least 810,000 individuals from various official bodies including nineteen million lines of financial data from Turkey’s Savings Deposit Insurance Fund which was used to identify those who had an account in Bank Asya, and those who have made payments or donations to media outlets, education institutions, trade unions, associations and foundations which were dissolved by emergency decrees. Even linguistic skills such as knowledge of English were included in the FETÖ-Meter as a criterion pointing to possible involvement in a subversive conspiracy.

In addition, the telephone calls and Internet records of approximately one million GSM numbers have been processed by the ATİİİŞ. The report finds that there is no legal basis to obtain and process such personal data.

Quotes

Ali Yıldız, a lawyer registered in the Ankara and Brussels bars and one of the authors of the report, said:

“The report shines a flashlight on the (mis)use of algorithms and other information-based systems by the Turkish government in its ruthless counter- terrorism crackdown since the July 2016 events. Thousands of people have been put out of work, detained, and persecuted by reference to ‘scores’ assigned to them by a tool of persecution, the so-called FETÖ-Meter. This situation is far from being unique to Turkey: in an increasingly connected world where states make wider recourse to counter-terrorism surveillance tools, the possibility of falling victim to algorithmic persecution is high. The report therefore serves as a wake-up call to bring more awareness to the devastating effects of algorithmic persecution and oppression not just in Turkey, but also in the entire world.”

Yasha Maccanico, a researcher for Statewatch, said:

“This report is a chilling reminder that criteria used to algorithmically identify suspects can be engineered to allow the authorities to criminalise whoever they wish. It also raises the issue of whether it is appropriate for EU funding to be allocated to a country instrumentally designated as “safe” for refugees in which a crackdown on civil society, public officials, military personnel and political opposition is underway. It is worth reading about this example of blanket algorithmic criminalisation in connection with the EU’s own expansive hi-tech plans for internal security.”

Notes for editors

[1] The report, ‘Algorithmic persecution in Turkey’s post-coup crackdown: The FETÖ- Meter system’, was written by academic Emre Turkut and a practicing human rights lawyer, Ali Yildiz. It is available here: https://www.statewatch.org/fetometer

Statewatch produces and promotes critical research, policy analysis and investigative journalism to inform debates, movements and campaigns on civil liberties, human rights and democratic standards. It began operating in 1991 and is based in London.

[2] These are detailed in the report on pages 13-18.

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