Telecommunications company Vodafone’s report on government surveillance of its subscribers in 29 countries reveals more than first meets the eye — and is raising questions from Dublin to Delhi about how much spying on e-mail and telephone chats happens in secret.
In Friday’s report, Vodafone said most countries required the company’s knowledge and cooperation to hear telephone calls or see e-mails, but at least six governments have given their security agencies the power of direct access.
Vodafone did not identify the countries that have tapped into its network, but the report provided some clues. An 88-page appendix reveals that five countries — Albania, Egypt, Hungary, Ireland and Qatar — have provisions that allow authorities to demand unfettered access. In vague language, the report also indicated similar powers could exist in India and the UK, too.
In too many cases, Vodafone said, governments kept both the company and wider society in the dark about what was happening, with laws explicitly forbidding government disclosure of any details of its electronic eavesdropping.
Ireland, a European hub for many social media and communications companies, refused to tell Vodafone anything about how its national police accessed its wireless and Internet services. The Irish situation is muddied further by the fact that its laws on the subject date to 1983 and 1993, when mobile and e-mail communication were still in their infancy.
The Irish government defends the need for electronic surveillance to combat Irish Republican Army factions and Ireland’s criminal underworld.
However, Ireland’s civil liberties watchdog accused the government of legal laziness over the past two decades of telecommunications innovation.
“Our interception laws were drafted in a pre-digital age and are plainly no longer fit for purpose,” Irish Council for Civil Liberties director Mark Kelly said.
Kelly said he has asked the government to confirm whether it operates “direct access pipes into the networks of telecoms operators.”
Other European countries are far more open. In Germany, for example, the government publishes annual statistics. In 2012, the most recent year of disclosure, Germany said it made 18,026 requests to telephone companies to hear 23,687 calls.
Wiretapping of telephones and accessing of call records for law-enforcement purposes is a decades-old and accepted practice even in the most open democracies. With backing from courts, police can request cooperation from telephone companies to access communications.
However, in developing countries, such as the Congo, Ghana and Lesotho, Vodafone said it cannot support wiretapping, because governments have not requested the technology.
By publishing its report, and highlighting its efforts to seek explanations from governments, Vodafone is entering the international debate about balancing the rights of privacy against security.
Rather than being stuck with responsibility and backlash when citizens realize their data has been scooped up without their permission, Vodafone is pushing for a debate.
“The government always argues that they have to weigh freedom and security, and security always overrides freedom,” Delhi-based People’s Union for Democratic Rights activist Gautam Navlakha said.
Navlakha said India’s government tapped the lines of every telephone company in the country and used the power to gain information in a society where “everything leaks.”