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Behind Turkey’s WhatsApp panic: the ByLock experience

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Tens of thousands of people in Turkey have begun leaving messaging app WhatsApp for other worldwide applications such as Telegram, Signal or the domestically developed BiP. The anxiety over WhatsApp was mainly caused by rumors circulating among the Turkish public that the content of private correspondence on it would be shared with Turkey’s authorities under new privacy settings that are about to kick in. In addition, the mass detention of tens of thousands of people in the last few years over their alleged use of another messaging app, ByLock, is also seen as an underlying cause for concern.

On Jan. 4 WhatsApp announced changes to its terms of use and privacy policy effective as of Feb. 8. The move makes it impossible for users not to disclose their data to WhatsApp owner Facebook, which is in fact an implementation of a data policy in the works since 2016.

However, the news was spread in Turkey as WhatsApp being enabled to collect private messages and hand the content over to the Turkish government. The debate made it to Turkey’s top Twitter trending topics, and many people announced that they were removing WhatsApp or deleting all their past messages.

The fear also arose from the mass incarceration of people in the past few years over their alleged use of the messaging app ByLock, which was available on Apple Store up until 2014 and on Google Play before 2016. Reports claimed that Turkey’s intelligence service, the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), hacked into the application’s server in Lithuania and copied its contents. Others alleged that MİT paid the company that owned the server to do so. Afterwards, investigations were launched into ByLock’s users in Turkey, and the use of the app was construed by Turkish courts as membership in the faith-based Gülen movement, which the Turkish government accuses of orchestrating a failed coup in July 2016 and lists as a terrorist organization. The government alleges that the app was exclusively used by the members of the group.

According to Interior Ministry figures, by the end of 2019 a total of 82,894 people had faced investigations for their use of ByLock and the authorities were looking into 14,791 others. Tens of thousands among these people were arrested.

In many of the cases the Turkish authorities were unable to access the content of the detainees’ correspondence on ByLock.

Government promotes BiP

Most people who have left WhatsApp often prefer Telegram or Signal. However, another popular messaging app is BiP, which is owned by GSM operator Turkcell, of which the Turkish government holds the majority of shares. Officials close to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as well as the pro-Erdoğan media have been advocating in favor of the app, using Erdoğan’s frequent advertising slogan “Domestic and national.”

However, BiP does not offer end-to-end encryption like WhatsApp or Signal. That is why it is easier to intercept the users’ written correspondence and voice calls.

The Turkish-produced app requests access to far more data than WhatsApp requests for Facebook with its latest update.

Surprisingly, one of those who slammed BiP was the staunchly pro-Erdoğan journalist İsmail Kılıçarslan.

“For our personal data and privacy, BiP promises an entire police state, nothing less,” Kılıçarslan said. “All our personal data is collected for advertising optimization, while every single thing we write to each other is at the disposal of security officials. This is included in the terms we agree to when we install BiP.”

Erdoğan’s son-in-law among those deleting WhatsApp

Pro-Erdoğan circles’ advocacy in favor of deleting WhatsApp and installing BiP to replace has been met with skepticism and apprehension. Some believe the government is insisting on BiP in order to be able to access personal data more easily and control the messaging network in the event of social unrest or crisis.

The Twitter tag ‘WhatsAppSiliyoruz’ (We are deleting WhatsApp) was particularly supported by people close to Erdoğan, one of whom was Selçuk Bayraktar, Erdoğan’s son-in-law who owns a large corporation operating in the defense industry.

Bayraktar tweeted that he was leaving WhatsApp and suggested a list of alternatives. BiP was at the top of the list.

The boycott movement’s Twitter tag reached hundreds of thousands.

Facebook statement

Facebook, the company that owns WhatsApp, released a statement on the planned changes brought to the privacy settings, announcing that the update does not bring anything new to WhatsApp’s data sharing with Facebook and does not affect the way users interact with each other. The company said the new policy was communicated through WhatsApp in order to allow users to review it before it takes effect next month.

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