Vodafone report sparks global surveillance debate
New York • Telecommunications company Vodafone's report on government surveillance of its customers in 29 countries reveals more than first meets the eye — and is raising questions from Dublin to Delhi about how much spying on email and telephone chats happens in secret.
In Friday's report Vodafone said most countries required the company's knowledge and cooperation to hear phone calls or see emails, but at least six governments have given their security agencies the power of direct access.
Vodafone didn't identify the countries that have tapped into its network, but the report provided some clues. An 88-page appendix reveals that five countries — Albania, Egypt, Hungary, Ireland and Qatar — have provisions that allow authorities to demand unfettered access.
In vague language, the report also indicated similar powers could exist in India and the United Kingdom, too.
In too many cases, Vodafone said, governments kept both the company and wider society in the dark about what was happening, with laws explicitly forbidding government disclosure of any details of its electronic eavesdropping.
Ireland, a European hub for many social media and communications companies, refused to tell Vodafone anything about how its national police accessed its wireless and internet services. The Irish situation is muddied further by the fact that its laws on the subject date to 1983 and 1993, when mobile and email communication were still in their infancy.
The Irish government defends the need for electronic surveillance to combat Irish Republican Army factions and Ireland's criminal underworld. But Ireland's civil liberties watchdog accused the government of legal laziness over the past two decades of telecommunications innovation.
"Our interception laws were drafted in a pre-digital age and are plainly no longer fit for purpose," said Mark Kelly, director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.
Kelly said he has asked the government to confirm whether it operates "direct access pipes into the networks of telecoms operators."
Other European countries are far more open. In Germany, for example, the government publishes annual statistics. In 2012, the most recent year of disclosure, Germany said it made 18,026 requests to phone companies to hear 23,687 calls.
Wiretapping of phones and accessing of call records for law-enforcement purposes is a decades-old and accepted practice even in the most open democracies. With backing from courts, police can request cooperation from phone companies to access communications.
But in developing countries such as Congo, Ghana and Lesotho, Vodafone said it cannot support wiretapping, because governments haven't requested the technology.
By publishing its report, and highlighting its efforts to seek explanations from governments, Vodafone is entering the international debate about balancing the rights of privacy against security. Rather than being stuck with responsibility and backlash when citizens realize their data has been scooped up without their permission, Vodafone is pushing for a debate.
"The government always argues that they have to weigh freedom and security, and security always overrides freedom," said Gautam Navlakha, an activist in India for the Delhi-based People's Union for Democratic Rights.
Navlakha said India's government tapped the lines of every phone company in the country and used the power to gain information in a society where "everything leaks."
Vodafone's report comes one year after former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden revealed that U.S. and other countries' intelligence agencies indiscriminately gathered and stored data from phone calls and Internet communications.
Norway's Telenor Group, which operates across Eastern Europe and Asia, backed Vodafone's report, noting governments have the ultimate responsibility to act.
Several Silicon Valley companies have attempted to restore consumers' trust by publishing data on electronic spying and raising pressure on President Barack Obama to curb the U.S. government's Internet-based surveillance programs.