Vodafone has revealed that governments around the globe use secret wires to snoop on phone conversations over its networks.
The mobile network came clean on exactly how some governments in the 29 countries where Vodafone operates use wires connected directly (and permanently) to its network to eavesdrop on conversations in real-time, and also track the location of individuals making calls. In other words, in some nations intelligence agencies don't have to make an interception request to authorise such action.
The revelation comes ahead of Vodafone publishing a lengthy Law Enforcement Disclosure Report today.
The Guardian reports that in six of the countries where Vodafone operates, the law specifies that mobile operators have to install direct-access wires (which can be equipment in a room in the network's main data centre), or the law allows the government to do so. Vodafone didn't name those countries for fear of government reprisal against its staff members employed there. We can see from the report, though, that there are nine countries where it's illegal to reveal the stats concerning message interceptions, namely: Albania, Egypt, Hungary, India, Malta, Qatar, Romania, South Africa and Turkey.
As for the UK, Vodafone's group privacy officer, Stephen Deadman, noted that such a system would be against the law in this country, as intelligence agencies can't exercise such powers without a warrant. But at the same time he noted that the law does "allow indiscriminate collection of information on an unidentified number of targets", according to the Guardian.
Deadman said: "We need to debate how we are balancing the needs of law enforcement with the fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizens. The ideal is we get a much more informed debate going, and we do all of that without putting our colleagues in danger."
According to stats from Vodafone's report, last year the UK government made 2,760 interception requests, and 514,608 requests for communications metadata such as phone numbers, device locations, times calls were made and so forth. That's across all the networks in Britain, mind; not just Voda.
Vodafone has made these revelations to spearhead a push to get such direct-access wires disconnected, and for the laws that make them possible to be changed.
Privacy rights activists are (obviously enough) not too happy at these revelations, but are giving Vodafone kudos for stepping forward with them. Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International, commented: "These are the nightmare scenarios that we were imagining. I never thought the telcos [telecommunications companies] would be so complicit. 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."
Of course, you have to wonder what other sort of angle Vodafone might have here – and let's face it, the position of "bringer of light" to this dark issue won't hurt the company's public reputation in the UK following all those tax shenanigans. That said, this isn't the first time Voda has banged the drum on the issue of phone surveillance this year. And there's no denying that this is an important message from the operator, and hopefully one that will be heard, and which will lead to surveillance law reform where it's needed. We won't hold our breath on that score, though.