Government agencies in a group of unnamed countries have been tapping into Vodafone's network to monitor and record phone calls between citizens, the company says in a new report. The world's second-largest phone carrier revealed the type of surveillance that its customers are under as part of its first Law Enforcement Disclosure Report.
Depending on the country, government agencies either send lawful interception requests to Vodafone or they directly tap into the network's pipes in a more forceful way. In the latter scenario, Vodafone does not have control over what type of information the agencies collect or who they are collecting it on -- the company can either go along or stop doing business in that country.
There is a legal framework present in each of the 29 countries that Vodafone has operations in for the interception of phone calls. In many European countries, the laws require Vodafone to hand over information or enable an agency to monitor a specific target's communications. Other countries, however, have legal frameworks that give government agencies far more intrusive power.
Few people are unhappy that Vodafone complies with traditional government requests, but the company's report shows that in some markets, Vodafone's network is tapped directly at all times. In countries where individual warrants are not necessary, Vodafone said the government agencies set up a direct pipe into the network that is operated from a locked room at a Vodafone exchange.
Government agencies that have direct and uninhibited access to Vodafone's network at all times are not "rogue" like some government surveillance agencies have been described. Instead, certain countries force Vodafone to allow the creation of direct connections if the company is to do business in that market.
"Refusal to comply with a country's laws is not an option," Vodafone said in the report. "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."
Consumer advocacy and privacy rights organizations applauded Vodafone for its decision to create and release the report, even though some of the information included in it is unsettling. The unnamed governments that are tapping into phone networks are at the center of the report, but Vodafone also details other government requests country by country.
There were a number of markets -- Albania, Egypt, Hungary, India, Malta, Qatar, Romania, South Africa and Turkey -- for which Vodafone was unable to provide surveillance statistics. Those countries prohibit release of surveillance information. But in all the other nations Vodafone serves, the information is now public.
The positive response that Vodafone has received since releasing its report gives privacy groups hope that other telecommunications providers will detail their involvement with government agencies as well. Now that it is understood how agencies in some countries operate their surveillance programs, customers and advocacy groups can respond.