Drawing the line between privacy and security in surveillance

When the residents of Istanbul were becoming acquainted in 2005 with the new Mobile Electronic System Integration Project (MOBESE) -- an alarm system with integrated security cameras placed throughout the city's streets to fight crime -- a group of people emerged to oppose the project. They call themselves NO-BESE. Their Web site, www.izleniyoruz.net, where the domain name translates to "we're being watched," tells visitors their IP addresses and Internet service provider (ISP) information and warns, "We are being watched in cyberspace, too." NO-BESE says they are uncomfortable with the feeling of being watched even when walking on the streets. They protest this type of surveillance, which they believe infringes on privacy and personal freedoms through nonviolent activism. They also have a wide support base.

"We, the undersigned, are unconditionally opposed to the use of video surveillance cameras in public places. We are also opposed to the use of surveillance cameras that, though installed in privately owned places, are actually used to monitor the public. We believe that both types of cameras, in addition to being useless in the 'wars' on crime and terrorism, are tools that are all-too-frequently used to violate our rights to privacy, anonymity, dignity and political dissent," read their statement on the International Day against Video Surveillance in March."

NO-BESE activists are a group of people influenced by the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP), which was established in New York in 1996 and later expanded to include more countries, such as Italy, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Lithuania. In one of their protests, NO-BESE stood in front of a MOBESE camera and displayed posters protesting the state's widespread use of camera surveillance.

"Cameras are not the only threats to our rights. Government agencies and private security firms also use wiretaps, bugs, GPS transponders, RFID chips and computers dedicated to data gathering, retention and 'mining.' But we choose to focus on video surveillance cameras because they are the most visible manifestation of the emerging surveillance society," they say on their Web site.

Not a single day passes in Turkey these days without an official claiming that he or she is being watched or that his or her phone conversations are being monitored. Similar allegations came up during the ongoing investigation into Ergenekon, a criminal network whose members are accused of having tried to manipulate the country from behind the scenes through assassinations and provocations for their ultimate purpose of overthrowing the government. The prosecutors have found evidence leading them to believe that the gang had an intricate system using state-of-the art technology to monitor phone conversations and track individuals.

Turkish Soccer fans, too, have been concerned about this increasingly Orwellian atmosphere created by MOBESE. One of Turkey's biggest soccer clubs, Fenerbahce, has increased the number of MOBESE cameras around its stadium to 178 from 89 in an effort to tighten security, drawing criticism from its own fans. The Fenerbahce Fan Club has spoken out against the increase in cameras in a letter addressed to the prime minister.

"In this world of electronics, there is nothing that cannot be deciphered, bugged or mined," according to an electronics engineer employed at Turk Telekom who did not wish to be identified. Although he was quick to state that Turk Telekom cannot possibly monitor anyone's calls unless legal authorization is issued by a prosecutor, he also said there are a number of electronic devices available to individuals determined to wiretap a room or an office. "Never mind phone tapping; even your conversations at home can be heard outside your home if the right kind of antenna is directed toward you," he explained.

But if "bugging" is so easy in this highly technological era, then how much of our privacy can we really protect? Do we have to sacrifice some of our privacy for a sense of security? Istanbul-based psychiatrist Bengi Semerci says communication devices have been promoted as bringing more "freedom" into people's lives, but that they actually bring in a new set of restrictions: "The freedom to communicate using high-tech devices connected to satellites has also been promoted as a method of ensuring security. But it also makes it easier to wiretap or watch everyone else, a fact rarely mentioned by those who praise these new technologies. People usually sacrifice their right to privacy in exchange for security measures that are expensive and, in fact, restrictive to freedoms."

The same Telekom engineer agrees with this view. "The IP address and ISP Internet Service Provider number of a user on the Internet are quite like caller ID systems displaying phone numbers. IP numbers are visible the minute a user connects to a site over the Internet. So if someone wishes, they can track the sites you have been to using your IP number and how much time you spend there," he said. He also warned that it doesn't take too much skill to monitor email traffic -- although not the content of the exchanges. However, he said even that is not too difficult for intelligence services who employ capable hackers and coders who can read your email with little difficulty. This is why the need for costly protection software, such as stronger firewalls and email encryption tools, has been increasing.

Privacy vs. security

With advanced technology making violent images from wars, terrorist attacks and massacres in far-away places available to the average viewer, the need of societies for a higher sense of security has also been increasing, another reason why the security axis might at times be weighing more heavily in the balance between privacy and security.

"Following a trauma, people feel mutually shared feelings like desperation and concern. In such instances, a collective urge to give up rights and freedoms for more security might emerge," Semerci explains. Her words bring to mind the aftermath of Sept.11, 2001, when the United States government passed legislation criticized by many as curtailing basic freedoms and the right to privacy. In other words, if even the US, which boasts of its tradition of valuing individual freedoms highly, can forsake those freedoms in the face of trauma, it is not hard to see why Turkey, a country that tops the list of nations facing terrorist threats with a society that does not necessarily esteem individual freedoms so highly, would be more inclined to give up their rights more readily in the name of security.

Avniye Tansug, a specialist in information technology law, however, said new legislation focusing on protecting the privacy of individuals has been emerging all across the world. But he admits that this tendency has not yet shown itself in Turkey. But, as Tansug also noted, as long as politicians keep playing the "national security" card, individual freedoms will be sacrificed more readily in exchange for "more security."

(Written by Salih Zengin and published in English in the 24 August 2008 issue of Today's Zaman.)

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail SCP@notbored.org

By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998