Vodafone reveals how governments around the world intercept calls and messages

First ever global survey by a telecoms company reveals the existence of wire taps allowing "permanent access" to calls and messages without a warrant

Secret cables allow government spies in many countries to listen in to conversations on Vodafone’s network, the telecom giant has revealed.

The company’s first ever Law Enforcement Disclosure Report detailed the legal interception of various types of content (from messages and phone calls to metadata such as call time and location) for the 29 countries in which it operates.

The direct-access wires or pipes are connected to its network, allowing conversations to be recorded and mobile phone users to be tracked. In six of the countries, the wires are a legal requirement for telecoms companies.

Vodafone did not reveal the countries have such permanent access for fear of retaliation against its staff, but called upon governments to change “legislation which enables agencies and authorities to access an operator’s communications infrastructure without the knowledge and direct control of the operator".

“In our view, it is governments - not communications operators - who hold the primary duty to provide greater transparency on the number of agency and authority demands issued to operators,” said the British telecommunications company.

“If we do not comply with a lawful demand for assistance, governments can remove our license to operate, preventing us from providing services to our customers,” the company added.

Stephen Deadman, of Vodafone, 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 in an important constraint on how the powers are used.”

He said such a system would be illegal in the UK because agencies are supposed to obtain information under a warrant, adding "we need to debate how we are balancing the needs of law enforcement with the fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizens."

Vodafone called for direct-access wires to be disconnected so that warrants had to be obtained through due process before surveillance could be carried out while  civil rights groups expressed horror at the revelations.

Shami Chakrabarti, the director of human rights campaign group Liberty, said: “For governments to access phone calls at the flick of a switch is unprecedented and terrifying.

“[Former CIA contractor Edward] Snowden revealed the internet was already treated as fair game. Bluster that all is well is wearing pretty thin – our analogue laws need a digital overhaul.”

Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International, said: “These are the nightmare scenarios that we were imagining.

“I never thought that telcos would be so complicit. It’s a brave step by Vodafone and hopefully 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.”

In the UK, the government made 2,760 request to intercept messages directly and 514,608 requests for metadata. Vodafone made it clear that direct-access wire taps would be illegal in Britain as they sidestep the need for a warrant, but the UK’s method of counting data requests could be misleading, with individual warrants able to be applied to multiple individuals.

In comparison with the UK, Ireland refused to publish any statistics for data requests, while it was revealed that Italian law enforcement made 140,577 requests for direct interceptions– a figure that dwarfs the UK’s due to the country’s battle against the Mafia.

After Italy, the Czech Republic made the most requests for metadata in the EU (195, 504) with Australia topping the charts globally (685, 757 requests).

Vodafone warned that although metadata requests may seem more benign than direct intercepts “it is possible to learn a great deal about an individual’s movements, interest and relationships from an analysis of metadata.”

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