Major data breach amid racist attacks: IDs of Syrians in Turkey circulate online

This illustration photo taken on December 22, 2023, shows the mobile messaging and call service Telegram's logo on a smartphone screen, in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP)

A massive data breach has compromised the personal information of over 3 million Syrian refugees residing in Turkey amid a wave of anti-Syrian violence in the country, Turkish Minute reported.

The leak, which surfaced on several Telegram channels, included personal details such as names, addresses and phone numbers.

The violence intensified this week following allegations of the molestation of a 7-year-old Syrian girl in Kayseri on Sunday. The incident sparked retaliation against Syrians in multiple cities, resulting in widespread property damage and assaults. At the same time Turkish trucks and soldiers were attacked in Turkish-controlled northern Syria.

Violent protests erupted in Syria’s northwestern regions controlled by Turkey, leading to clashes between armed demonstrators and Turkish forces in Afrin, leaving seven dead and over 20 injured. In Antalya, a 17-year-old Syrian, Ahmet Handan El Naif, was killed by a mob.

Turkey’s interior ministry confirmed that the breach involved identity details of Syrians under temporary protection. According to the ministry, the leaked information is no longer up to date. The authorities have launched an investigation to verify the date of the data and determine the origin of the leak.

Initial findings revealed that the social media account responsible for sharing the information was managed by a 14-year-old identified as E.P., who was subsequently detained.

“This is a serious breach of privacy and security,” an official from the Directorate General of Migration Management told Turkish media. “We are committed to identifying the source and preventing any further misuse of this data.”

The breach has heightened fears among Syrians in Turkey, who worry about retribution, potentially forcing them to return to Syria or seek illegal routes to the EU.

The timing and scale of the breach have led to suspicions of a political motive aimed at discrediting Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya. Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), has reportedly pressured President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to remove Yerlikaya from his position.

Speaking to Voice of America’s Turkish edition, Erhan Keleşoğlu, a political scientist, previously suggested that the orchestrated nature of the attacks against Syrians could be linked to internal political strife.

Keleşoğlu implied that a possible rift between President Erdoğan and his far-right ally, the MHP, may have led to the recent outbreak of violence as MHP members might have had something to gain from the unrest.

The timing and nature of the recent violence against Syrians as well as the major data breach raise questions about whether these events are part of a broader, orchestrated effort by MHP circles.

The interior ministry’s cyber crime department is leading the investigation into the breach.

“We will capture and bring to justice those who seek to create chaos and exploit children for their provocations,” a ministry spokesperson told Turkish media.

Experts point to a pervasive atmosphere of hostility towards refugees in Turkey, exacerbated by economic challenges and political rhetoric.

In a recent speech, President Erdoğan blamed groups linked to terrorist organizations for the unrest, vowing to expose those responsible. “We will not give in to racist vandalism,” Erdoğan declared.

Erdoğan said last Friday that a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to restore bilateral relations was possible. Turkey had severed ties with Syria after the Syrian civil war in 2011 and supported the rebels who wanted to topple Assad.

This latest data leak follows another significant data breach uncovered by investigative journalist Cevheri Güven. He revealed in March that the personal data of over 101 million Turkish citizens, including deceased individuals, had been compromised. Güven’s investigation revealed that the security breach, which originated from the Ministry of Health’s public health administration system, was exploited by organized crime groups. These groups gained access to the data through criminal online marketplaces by using the security keys of members of the civil service, exposing a serious and persistent vulnerability in Turkey’s data protection infrastructure.

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