Vodafone is one of the largest mobile phone companies in the world and they have just dropped some serious information on the public: secret wires have been used to listen to Vodafone conversations in 29 countries. The wires were used by government agencies, allowing them direct access to listen in to any conversation in Europe and beyond, without a warrant.
Government surveillance of phone lines has been a point of contention in the United States with the NSA for some time, but now it is a worldwide issue. Vodafone is pushing back against the surveillance, publishing a Law Enforcement Disclosure Report. It is the most comprehensive report of how governments monitor phone conversations available today, going through every nation affected in detail.
Here's the country by country breakdown:
Privacy campaigners have called this information from Vodafone a "nightmare scenario." Beyond allowing governments to listen and record the conversations, it also allowed them to track the location of the Vodafone customer who they were listening to.
In some countries, this is actually completely legal, because "the law either obliges telecoms operators to install direct access pipes, or allows governments to do so." Vodafone has not yet named those nations, but considering how quickly surveillance cases can snowball, we might hear from some very cranky wiretapping countries soon.
"I never thought the telcos 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."
Vodafone would like to see direct access pipes completely removed from their service. For now now, they are between a rock and a hard place. Vodafone's group privacy officer, Stephen Deadman, said:
"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 is an important constraint on how powers are used."
While Vodafone may want to do the honorable thing, for now, government laws and a lack of transparency stand in the way. They are also restricted by their desire for more capital: it's hard to say no to a paying customer in a nation that might be listening to their calls.