Vodafone, one of the biggest mobile operators in the world, has admitted that it maintains a secret wire-tapping service that enables governments and their spy agencies to listen-in to live calls.
The admission from Vodafone is disclosed in a 40,000-word transparency report, Vodafone’s “Law Enforcement Disclosure Report”, that will be published today.
It shows that governments’ surveillance activities go even further than expected: in six countries that Vodafone operates in, it is obliged to provide governments with direct access so that government agencies can listen in at will. In these countries, government agencies can listen-in to communications at will, without obtaining a warrant first.
These wires are typically attached directly to the company’s central data centre or the company’s telecoms switches. Staff are employed on-site to intercept any traffic requested by the governments’ agencies.
In a number of countries, it is also illegal to even disclose information related to official wire-tapping or interception of communications. Those countries are Qatar, Romania, South Africa, India, Egypt and Turkey.
The report will show that across the 29 countries that the report will survey – and can report about – people in Italy, the UK, Malta and Australia are among the most spied upon.
Vodafone’s group privacy officer, Stephen Deadman, told The Guardian: “These pipes exist, the direct access model exists. We are making a call to end direct access as a means of government agencies obtaining people’s communication data.
“Without an official warrant, there is no external visibility. If we receive a demand we can push back against the agency. The fact that a government has to issue a piece of paper is an important constraint on how powers are used,” he said.
Vodafone is calling for all direct-access to telecoms networks to be stopped.
Privacy International praised Vodafone for coming clean over the extent of government surveillance. “It’s a brave step by Vodafone and hopefully the other telcos will become more brave with disclosure, but what we need is for them to be braver about fighting back against the illegal requests and the laws themselves,” said executive director Gus Hosein.
Other telecoms companies that have published intercept data include AT&T and Verizon in the US, Deutsche Telekom in Germany, and Australia’s near-monopoly national telco Telstra. Vodafone is the first, however, to produce a global survey – and has published its report exactly a year after the first disclosures from Snowden were published.