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Demokrasi or Democracy? How Foreign Language Skills Are Vital to Cybersecurity

posted Aug 13, 2016, 2:24 PM by Michael Lenart   [ updated Aug 13, 2016, 2:44 PM ]
By Brandi Meoni

“The situation is very serious,” warned a viral message spreading across social media in Turkey in the wake of a failed military coup against the country’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on July 15th 2016. The message warned social media users that hackers were targeting their IP addresses in order to covertly post anti-government propaganda. As the message was gradually exposed as a hoax, it became the focus of various light-humored jokes and spoofs. [1] But in the aftermath of the failed coup, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s still imposed state of emergency is no laughing matter. With the subsequent dismissal and arrest of tens of thousands of military personnel, judges, teachers, civil servants and journalists, as well as a brutal crackdown on media outlets and freedom of political expression, the situation is in fact very serious.

The Turkish military, historically seen as the guardians of the Kemalist secular legacy handed down by the Turkish Republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, had once again demonstrated their opposition to the government’s ongoing shift toward Islamist policies. In a military ordered announcement issued by the state broadcaster TRT, the coup plotters publicly proclaimed the need for a new constitution and restoration of the “democratic and secular rule of law.” [2] But after President Erdoğan’s swift mobilization of his supporters via the mobile application FaceTime, the coup was quickly put down. As Erdoğan regained full government control, it was not the secular opposition party CHP at which he directed his accusations of treason, but rather his former ally, the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen.

In a country polarized by religious and secular ideologies, Erdoğan and Gülen’s shared Islamist views made them natural allies. But after a 2013 political scandal threatened Erdoğan’s government, Gülen became one of his strongest adversaries. Erdoğan has since labeled Gülen’s Hizmet (Service) Movement a terrorist organization, accusing its supporters of infiltrating government institutions in an attempt to create a parallel state.  With the state of emergency in place, Erdoğan vowed to aggressively purge all Gülenist supporters from government positions. What has transpired, though, since the July 15 events, has been nothing short of an indiscriminate attack on political dissent, press freedoms, and critical dialogue regarding the current political climate.

Turkey’s Western allies, as well as human rights groups, have expressed their concerns over the extent and severity of the government’s crackdown. Most disturbing are Amnesty International’s allegations that it has “received credible evidence of detainees being subject to beatings and torture, including rape, since the coup attempt.” [3] In numerous cases, links between the Gülenist movement and those who have been detained are unsubstantiated, leading many observers to believe that Erdoğan is using the coup as an opportunity to eliminate any and all political opposition. Some believe that he may have even orchestrated the coup himself for this purpose. [4]

As the international community reacted with confusion, speculation, and concern over the events unfolding in Turkey, the whistleblowing organization WikiLeaks announced that it would publish what it called “The Erdoğan Emails,” a searchable collection of nearly 300,000 files leaked from the AKP. The collection covered a period dating from 2010 until July 6 of this year. Although the emails had been obtained prior to the coup, WikiLeaks decided to expedite their publication in response to the increasing alarm over the government’s crackdown. The organization claimed to have verified the material, which promised to expose Turkey’s political power structure and shed light on the politics leading up to the coup. Due to the sensitivity of the material, WikiLeaks also warned Turkish citizens of impending censorship on the part of the Turkish government, and provided them with instructions for installing bypass systems such as TorBrowser and uTorrent.

As predicted, Turkey swiftly blocked access to WikiLeaks, and shortly after, the site reported a sustained distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on its server. In the eyes of those awaiting publication of the AKP emails, these incidents provided further proof that WikiLeaks’ claims were legitimate, and that the leak contained information that was damaging to Erdoğan and the AKP. Notorious hacker Phineas Fisher subsequently took credit for the stolen data, proudly tweeting “I hacked the AKP,” and posted a link to a 100-gigabyte archive comprised of several files. [5]

For those who don’t speak Turkish, the anti-secrecy organization may have seemed to fulfill its objective to publish the truth. However, as Turkish-speaking activists and analysts began sifting through the 300,000 files, their excitement gradually turned to disgust. What they found was not the huge cache of highly sensitive government emails that WikiLeaks promised, but rather large chunks of archives from online discussion groups that were already publicly accessible. Still, the misleading nature of WikiLeaks’ claims was not its most egregious error. On July 21 the organization tweeted a link to the full data for its “Turkey AKP emails + more.” That link provided access to a page hosting Turkish citizens’ private information, including a database containing the addresses and phone numbers of nearly every female voter in Turkey.

This mass doxing of Turkey’s female citizens is particularly troubling due to the country’s record of violence against women. Zeynep Tüfekçi, a Turkish sociologist who found the database through WikiLeaks’ link, expressed her thoughts in the Huffington Post, stating that “every year in Turkey hundreds of women are murdered, most often by current or ex-husbands or boyfriends, and thousands of women leave their homes or go into hiding, seeking safety.” [6] Equally disturbing is that her repeated tweets to WikiLeaks informing them of the database’s harmful content were met with denial. Instead of taking responsibility for their errors, WikiLeaks chose to launch an attack on Zeynep Tüfekçi, labeling her “an Erdoğan apologist.” [7]

It is clear that this misreporting could have been avoided had WikiLeaks consulted with Turkish speakers to properly verify the content of the data prior to making it publicly accessible. Responsibility also lies with hacker Phineas Fisher, whose stated motivations for hacking the Turkish government include advocacy for Kurdish rights and, ironically, gender liberation. [8] It is therefore unfortunate that women, for whom he advocates rights and freedoms, were put in danger due to the data which he himself exfiltrated. Despite the activist’s good intentions and superior hacking skills, his lack of knowledge of the Turkish language made him little more than a bull in the AKP china shop.

In her Huffington Post article, Zeynep Tüfekçi goes on to express her fears that “the ignorance with which Western media and alleged activists met with the publication of ordinary Turks’ private information, will become an unfortunate talking point for pro-censorship forces in Turkey.” [9] Another potentially offensive display of Western media ignorance can be seen in the illustration that accompanied WikiLeaks’ searchable database. The Orientalist-style caricature depicted Erdoğan as an Ottoman sultan on a flying carpet, knocking down pillars of democracy. One might question whether this highly stereotypical and potentially patronizing image was appropriate for the Turkish audience whose right to information WikiLeaks claimed to protect.

The lack of understanding with which WikiLeaks reported its information serves as an example of the importance linguistic and cultural training play in cyberspace operations. This example can easily be applied to state-directed cyber professionals, and serves as a valid argument for increased prioritization of linguistic and cultural training for those involved in cyberspace operations. According to a 2015 study conducted by RAND Corporation on the effectiveness of language defense training, the pipeline of skilled linguists is limited. Additionally, those who are selected to become language specialists are often trained from zero, or a very low skill level. This is problematic due to the length of time it takes to train absolute beginners to high levels of proficiency, and the high costs associated with extended training programs. [10]

Foreign languages that are vital to U.S. national security interests are often those to which most U.S. citizens have little previous exposure (Arabic, Persian, Mandarin, Russian) and share no common linguistic principles with English, making rapid progression by those with no existing language skills difficult if not impossible. Therefore, it can be argued that along with the effort being placed on recruiting cyber warriors with high levels of technical skill, it is equally important to focus recruitment efforts on identifying qualified candidates with pre-existing language skills. Those with both the language and technical skills are naturally the ideal recruits.

As these individuals may be in short supply, it is also critical to prioritize the development of educational pipelines of programs to grow these recruits. The RAND Corporation study acknowledges the benefits of The Language Flagship Initiative, which provides funding for K-12 education to “address the early years of students’ education and build a pipeline of second-language-proficient individuals in the U.S. workforce.” [11] As the need for cyber professionals with highly advanced technical skills is undeniable, so is the need for personnel highly proficient in foreign languages, without whom the missions of cyber professionals may not be as effective.

“In August 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta underscored the importance of language, regional expertise, and culture as enduring warfare competencies.” [12] For cyber professionals in the military and beyond, accessing and exfiltrating data, disabling websites, and using the Internet to publish material that promotes human rights are important capabilities. They depend not only on technical skill, but also on the ability to accurately analyze data and determine methods of information dissemination that are culturally and linguistically appropriate.

About the Author

Brandi Meoni has extensive international education and experience. She recently taught English in Antalya, Turkey. She holds a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science from Dominican University, a Postgraduate Diploma in Cultural Studies and Analysis from the University of Brighton in the United Kingdom, a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish Language and Literature from Hamline University, and has completed other programs in South America and Israel.    

End Notes


[2] CNBC

[3] BBC News

[4] The Clarion Project

[5] Motherboard

[6] Huffington Post

[7] Ibid.

[8] Motherboard

[9] Huffington Post

[10] RAND Corporation

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.