Government snooping into phone networks is extensive worldwide, one of the world’s largest cellphone companies revealed on Friday, saying that several countries demand direct access to its networks without warrant or prior notice.
The detailed report from Vodafone, which covers the 29 countries in which it operates in Europe, Africa and Asia, provides the most comprehensive look to date at how governments monitor mobile phone communications. It amounts to a call for a debate on the issue as businesses increasingly worry about being seen as worthy of trust.
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, a valuable tool for the pursuit of criminals.
Yet the most explosive revelation in Vodafone’s report is that in six countries, authorities require direct access to an operator’s network — bypassing legal niceties like warrants and eliminating the need to get case-by-case cooperation from telephone-company employees. It did not name the countries for legal reasons and to safeguard employees working there.
“In those countries, Vodafone will not receive any form of demand for lawful interception access as the relevant agencies and authorities already have permanent access to customer communications via their own direct link,” the firm’s report said.
Vodafone would not say which countries have established these direct links, but in an exhaustively researched appendix to the report, the UK-based company sheds light on the legal frameworks that surround government interception in the 29 countries. The appendix reveals that six countries — Albania, Egypt, Hungary, Ireland, Qatar and Turkey — have provisions that allow authorities to request unfettered access.
In two other countries, India and the UK, legal provisions are unclear as to whether government officials are allowed to have direct access, according to the report.
The revelations have focused particular attention on the role of Western technology and telecommunications firms, which stand accused of facilitating the mass surveillance by giving spies unrestricted access to their networks. Several Silicon Valley companies have since attempted to restore consumers’ trust by publishing data on government surveillance.
Yet telecom companies found themselves in an even more uncomfortable position. Historically closer to governments, since many were once state-owned, telecom companies are much more heavily regulated and have employees on the ground — making them more sensitive to government demands for data.
By making its report public, together with a breakdown on requests for information, Vodafone took the unusual step of entering the international debate about balancing the rights of privacy against security. Rather than being stuck with responsibility and consumer backlash when consumers realize their information has been scooped up without their knowledge, firms like Vodafone have decided it is time to push for a debate.
“Companies are recognizing they have a responsibility to disclose government access,” Information Technology and Innovation Foundation senior analyst Daniel Castro said in Washington. “This is new.”