Privacy advocates welcome Vodafone report on international government wire tapping

Privacy advocates have welcomed a Vodafone report detailing the range of surveillance requests it receives in 29 countries.

Vodafone disclosed that security agencies in 29 key markets have requested customer call data on its network in the last year, in one of the first mobile operator reports of its kind.

Human rights specialist group, Privacy International, has said that while Vodafone's inaugural Law Enforcement Disclosure Report is a first step, more transparency is now required. Dr Gus Hosein, Privacy International's executive director, stated. "While it does the more traditional 'transparency reporting', Vodafone also correctly notes that the mere release of numbers is insufficient. Each government permits different levels of reporting on the monitoring of communications, and some not at all.

"But in some cases, Vodafone wouldn't even know when authorities were accessing customer data. The report makes clear that there are demands upon companies to provide direct access to the local government. Vodafone reports that they cannot discuss the nature of these demands, saying 'it is unlawful even to reveal that such systems and processes exist at all'." Hosein noted, adding. "Companies must be held to account and their secret agreements with governments regarding the monitoring of communications data must be made public".

Vodafone's report covers government powers to order communications operators to allow the interception of customers' communications. This is known as 'lawful interception' and was previously known as 'wire tapping'.

The mobile operator said that in at least 10 of the 29 countries covered, the disclosures made have been placed in the public domain by a locally licensed operator for the first time.

In six countries, unnamed because of the risk to Vodafone employees on the ground, government agencies have implemented their own technology on the Vodafone network, or carried Vodafone's data traffic through their own systems so they could tap calls, Reuters reported.

Authorities in Albania, Egypt, Hungary, Ireland and Qatar are all able to access Vodafone's network without any involvement of the mobile operator, while in Turkey, authorities can "entirely" suspend all privacy rights in what they deem to be emergency situations, according to the document.

Privacy International stated Vodafone's report shows the extent of governmental powers to demand data without having to go through a court process. Hosein commented: "What may be the most alarming piece of the report is that in as many as six countries, authorities have direct access to Vodafone's network, which allows governments to monitor communications directly without having to go to the company for the data of their customers. This type of unfettered access permits uncontrolled mass surveillance of Vodafone's customers and anyone in contact with them."

Dr. Hosein added: "Transparency is essential for us to have an open debate about our privacy, and the boundaries and safeguards that define us as humans. It is critical to know how states, domestic and foreign, govern their incredible powers to interfere with our private lives."

Vodafone said that due to the difficulties of gaining access to information, more work is needed and it intends "to work with other local operators to develop a consistent cross-industry recording and reporting methodology and will engage with governments to make the case for a central, independent and verified source of statistical information spanning all operators".

For more:
- see the Vodafone Law Enforcement Disclosure Report
- see Privacy International's statement
- see this Reuters article

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