Which intelligence officer is covering which leader’s screen in corona days?

Today, while all the decision-makers are already in coronavirus quarantine, working through the videoconferencing system, the workload of intelligence services must have multiplied! Now, which intelligence officer is covering which leader’s screen, who knows!

Smart phones and their smart applications, by far, have captured our lives much before the coronavirus. Now, they are the key elements, naturally, of contact with the outside world in this new period full of uncertainty. Many of us have moved our work home. Those who make a living with white collar jobs have internet packages at home that they pay quite a lot of money, otherwise they cannot win their bread. It is not enough to be able to afford high internet bills; we also have to pour money into platforms that would keep us in social networks.  

Worse is, for all those applications we have downloaded - most of the time thinking they were free - a certain fee is charged after a while using our credit card information already in the memory of our smart phones. Digital literacy is critically important. If you are not careful with terms and conditions of the apps you are signing up for, you can end up with surprising fees.

As a matter of fact, according to a story in daily Sözcü last week, some teachers in Turkey noticed that the Zoom videoconference program they use for live lessons have cost them $58.5, which have been deducted from their accounts. It seems that for certain schools, the official live class application of the Education Ministry, EBA, was not enough and teachers were forced to use Zoom. After this was disclosed, a statement from the education ministry tried to curb the anger. They tried to assure teachers that they would be refunded. Well, of course, that is also important, but the ministry has actually admitted- in between lines - a bigger risk for millions of students and their families caused by videoconferencing methods used in education.  

“In those cases when virtual class apps are used other than EBA (official program), users should not enter these platforms with their own social media accounts; cameras of our students should be closed unless told otherwise; the cameras should be open only when necessary and it should only be the teacher authorized to do this; personal data should never be recorded by teacher and students during class and shared in any platform.”  

There is indeed no clear explanation in ministry's statement on how it would be monitored whether students really open the camera only in obligatory cases or who is recording what; because that area is a gray one. That gray area is the biggest threat not only to the education system the Ministry of Education but all of us as individuals are facing these days.  

Only a couple of days before teachers in Turkey noticed they had to pay for Zoom because they used the application to connect to more than 100 people at once, New York City Schools Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education Richard A. Carranza declared that they have banned schools from using this application. The Department of Education told teachers and students that Microsoft Teams was safer under current circumstances. 

New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, sent Zoom a letter last week demanding them to report officially to the office what measures they have taken to prevent any security gap regarding the privacy of users. 

According to the analytical data company App Annie, Zoom topped the charts worldwide in February and March among videoconferencing apps in the global market. During the week between March 15 and 21, Zoom was downloaded 14 times more than the weekly average of 2019 in the U.S. These figures are much higher in Europe where the coronavirus arrived earlier. During the same week, it was downloaded “55 times” more than the weekly average in Italy, “27 times” more in Spain and “20 times” more than the weekly average in the U.K. 

Another very popular app is Houseparty founded in 2016 in San Francisco and developed as the socialization platform of the Gen Z. If you have an intention of using this app, you should be ready to ignore the efforts of unrelated people trying to join the chat. It may be a person who has seen you online but also a person who you have never considered speaking to at all. You are not expected to invite everybody to your house party but you do not have the possibility to hide it from those you are keeping outside the door! 

Technology giants are waiting like hawks watching the spike Houseparty has done in past months, whose name nobody knew except for 20somethings before the coronavirus epidemic. On the week of March 15 to 21, Houseparty was downloaded 2 million times worldwide. Only one month before that date (February 2020) it was an application that was downloaded only 130,000 times worldwide. 

According to The Guardian, at least four serving cabinet ministers are on the Houseparty app, including health secretary Matt Hancock, currently self-isolating with coronavirus. After Prince Charles caught the virus, he and his wife went into self-isolation. The Duchess of Cornwall has been using Houseparty to keep in touch with her grandchildren “whom she is missing terribly,” The Daily Mail reported quoting a royal source. 

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is now hospitalized, was criticized by the British press for days for using Zoom for cabinet meetings while he was self-isolating at home. Likewise, the U.S. press is questioning the usage of Zoom whether it would cause a security gap regarding sensitive information related to the interests of the country.   

When Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered within Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul Consulate premises last year, Turkish intelligence recorded the entire incident, if not video, but vocal, giving an idea about the new normal of the international espionage contest. Many diplomats I spoke to during those days said, “Everybody is listening and recording everybody else. We all know this and live accordingly.” This was the situation in the world before the corona. Today, while all the decision-makers are already in coronavirus quarantine, working through the videoconferencing system, the workload of intelligence services must have multiplied.

Now, which intelligence officer is covering which leader’s screen, who knows!

Last week Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu was among the politicians in Turkey photographed while videoconferencing. I asked his advisors; they told me İmamoğlu was using Microsoft Teams for his domestic meetings, Zoom for his external meetings. I wonder which videoconferencing application President Tayyip Erdoğan is using in his cabinet meetings and personal talks. 

It is a requirement of being a citizen, certainly, to question which methods under quarantine circumstances institution are using to continue their work. After all, these institutions are led by leaders who are given the jurisdiction by the citizens.  

Still, at this point, my main issue is our individual freedoms and privacy as citizens rather than some state secrets.

Are we aware that with the technologies we use, we voluntarily narrow the scope of our private lives and personally submit innermost information to the hands of transnational companies and neoliberal-populist-authoritarian regimes?