In 1978, the U.S. government established a special court to oversee requests for surveillance warrants for suspected foreign intelligence agents inside the U.S. by federal law enforcement agencies under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Last year, the FISA court became the subject of media attention when Edward Snowden, a former systems administrator for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), leaked thousands of classified documents to several media outlets and revealed previously unknown aspects of mass surveillance in the U.S. Over the past year, mass surveillance has been at the heart of an international controversy. Most recently, Der Spiegel published an extensive piece about U.S. surveillance facilities in Germany, as German authorities forced the CIA station chief in Berlin to leave the country. Preoccupied with political turmoil and elections at home, Turkey has been largely uninterested in the episode. That is, until mass surveillance hit closer to home.
On February 24, 2014, Turkish daily Yeni Şafak broke the story that the authorities had eavesdropped on the phone calls and intercepted e-mail messages of thousands of citizens, including several Daily Sabah journalists, under secret court orders. Local media reported that the scandal was uncovered after several prosecutors were reassigned in mid-January citing their affiliation with the Gülen Movement, which the news outlets claimed had formed a shadow state involving members of law enforcement, public prosecutors and judges. Five months later, on July 22, dozens of police officers who allegedly were involved with unlawful mass surveillance were detained for questioning. Subsequently, an Istanbul court ordered the formal arrest of over 30 police officers on charges of wiretapping, forging documents and espionage. Meanwhile, the chief prosecutor of Istanbul withdrew terrorism charges against victims of unlawful wiretapping and ordered the destruction of all illegally obtained personal data.
The public debate has thus far merely focused on the Gülen Movement's involvement in the affair, the shadow state's rogue agenda, i.e., overthrowing the government and targeting political opponents, and the human stories on both sides of the argument. There is no denying that a courtroom drama unfolding on live television will receive media attention, but Turkey cannot afford to lose sight of the real problem: According to a confidential inspection report leaked by Al Jazeera Türk, the Intelligence Unit of the Istanbul Police Department, which lies at the heart of the controversy, intercepted the communications of 63,043 individuals between 2008 and 2013. Considering that controversial court cases such as the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases emerged out of Istanbul-based police operations, it would appear that members of law enforcement have traditionally utilized wiretapping techniques in order to build cases against specific, high-value individuals rather than fight crime in a general sense.
The eavesdropping scandal, however, represents a great opportunity for the nation to reflect on the protection of privacy and for the authorities to establish the necessary institutions to restrict wiretapping to a minimum. Fighting crime inevitably involves certain privacy violations, but the Turkish government needs to take necessary measures, including the establishment of a court exclusively dealing with surveillance requests, in order to prevent future abuses of power and make it easier for the public to know when, how, and why the authorities violate personal privacy.