LONDON (TheBlaze/AP) — Vodafone, one of the world's largest cellphone companies, revealed the scope of government snooping into phone networks Friday, saying authorities in some countries are able to directly access an operator's network without seeking permission.
The company outlined the details in a report that is described as the first of its kind, covering 29 countries in which it directly operates. It gives the most comprehensive look to date on how governments monitor the communications of their citizens.
woman walks past a branch of Vodafone in London on March 17, 2014. Vodafone agreed Monday to buy Spanish cable firm Ono as the British mobile phone giant stepped up its expansion in Europe using the proceeds from the sale of its US joint venture stake. More recently, the company released a report detailing the scope of government surveillance of its network in some countries. (JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
The most explosive revelation was that in a small number of countries, authorities require direct access to an operator's network — bypassing legal niceties like warrants. It did not name the countries.
"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," the report said.
The report itself reflects the concern now being raised regarding privacy rights around the world. Though Vodafone is a global company, it consists of separate subsidiaries, all of which are subject to domestic laws of the countries in which it operates.
"Communications technologies have evolved rapidly over the last 20 years. Almost three billion people now communicate and share information over electronic communications networks on a regular basis, and vast volumes of data are created and exchanged every second," Vodafone said in its report. "However, many of the legal powers relied upon by law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies and other government authorities were first drafted in a much simpler era, when a household shared a single telephone landline, mobile phones were relatively rare and the internet as we understand it today did not exist."
It went on to say that "all governments have incorporated national security exceptions into national legislation" but some have done a better job than others to "limit the human rights impact," while "others have created much wider-ranging powers with substantially greater human rights impacts."
"In a number of countries, these changes have created tensions between the protection of the citizen’s right to privacy and the duty of the state to ensure public safety and security," the report said. "Those tensions have been heightened as a consequence of the allegations made by the former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. Media reports of widespread government surveillance and data ‘harvesting’ by intelligence agencies have triggered a significant public debate about the transparency, proportionality and legitimacy – even lawfulness – of the alleged activities of a number of high-profile agencies."
Vodafone said it hopes the disclosures made in its report "will help inform" the debate governments face regarding a balance of "their duty to protect the state and its citizens against their duty to protect individual privacy."
Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the human rights group Liberty, described the findings as a worst-case scenario infringement into civil rights.
"For governments to access phone calls at the flick of a switch is unprecedented and terrifying," Chakrabarti said in a statement, adding that the Snowden revelations showed the Internet was already being treated as "fair game."
"Bluster that all is well is wearing pretty thin -- our analogue laws need a digital overhaul," she said.