Mobile phone giant Vodafone revealed Friday that in some countries where it operates, governments have a direct and permanent link to their customers' communications, allowing them "unfettered access" that allows for "uncontrolled mass surveillance."
The UK-headquartered company made that information public in its first Law Enforcement Disclosure Report.
While stating that it respects its users' right to privacy, the company adds that "in every country in which we operate, we have to abide by the laws of those countries which require us to disclose information about our customers to law enforcement agencies or other government authorities, or to block or restrict access to certain services."
The report reveals 29 countries whose governments requested user data between 1 April 2013 and 31 March 2014, though Vodafone is prevented by law from revealing the number of such requests for some of those countries. The government requests could come in the form of wiretapping, also known as "lawful interception," which Vodafone's report calls "one of the most intrusive forms of law enforcement assistance." The demands could also be for "communications data," or metadata.
Yet in some of those 29 other countries, no such government demand is needed because the government already has direct, permanent access to customer data. From the disclosure report:
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In most countries, Vodafone maintains full operational control over the technical infrastructure used to enable lawful interception upon receipt of an agency or authority demand. However, in a small number of countries the law dictates that specific agencies and authorities must have direct access to an operator’s network, bypassing any form of operational control over lawful interception on the part of the operator. 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.
This "may be the most alarming piece of the report," Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International, wrote at the organization's website. "This type of unfettered access permits uncontrolled mass surveillance of Vodafone’s customers and anyone in contact with them."
"This is mass surveillance at its most severe," he continues, "where government places demands against telcos for broad access to the data flowing through their wires, operating in secrecy, under unclear legal bases, without any accountability."
"We have learned from Mr. Snowden that governments see us not as people, but as objects to be monitored, tracked, and profiled. There is so much more to do," Hosein writes.