Cellphone operator reveals scale of gov’t snooping

LONDON (AP) — Government snooping into phone networks is
extensive worldwide, one of the world’s largest cellphone companies
revealed Friday, saying that several countries demand direct access to
its networks without warrant or prior notice.
The detailed report
from Vodafone, which covers the 29 countries in which it operates in
Europe, Africa and Asia, provides the most comprehensive look to date at
how governments monitor mobile phone communications. It amounts to a
call for a debate on the issue as businesses increasingly worry about
being seen as worthy of trust.
The most explosive revelation was
that in six countries, authorities require immediate access to an
operator’s network — bypassing legal niceties like warrants. It did not
name the countries for legal reasons and to safeguard employees working
there.
"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.
Vodafone’s report comes
one year after former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden revealed that
U.S. and other countries’ intelligence agencies routinely gathered huge
amounts of private data belonging to millions of innocent people in
America and across the globe.
The revelations have focused
particular attention on the role of Western technology and
telecommunications firms, which stand accused of facilitating the mass
surveillance by giving spies unrestricted access to their networks.
Several Silicon Valley companies have since attempted to restore
consumers’ trust by publishing data on government surveillance.
But
telecoms companies found themselves in an even more uncomfortable
position. Historically closer to governments since many were once
state-owned, telecoms companies are much more heavily regulated and have
employees on the ground — making them more sensitive to government
demands for data.
By making its report public, together with a
breakdown on requests for information, Vodafone took the unusual step of
entering the international debate about balancing the rights of privacy
against security. Rather than being stuck with responsibility and
consumer backlash when consumers realize their data has been scooped up
without their knowledge, companies like Vodafone have decided it is time
to push for a debate.
"Companies are recognizing they have a
responsibility to disclose government access," Daniel Castro, senior
analyst for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in
Washington, D.C. "This is new."
The study comes at a time when
other businesses are also calling for a revamp of laws too outdated to
stand up to the quickly changing telecommunications universe.
Executives
in Silicon Valley, for example, have stepped up pressure on President
Barack Obama to curb the U.S. government surveillance programs that
collect information off the Internet.
Twitter Inc., LinkedIn
Corp., AOL Inc., Google Inc., Apple Inc., Yahoo Inc., Facebook Inc. and
Microsoft Corp. are pushing for tighter controls over electronic
espionage — fearing that eavesdropping threatens the technology
industry’s financial livelihood.
"They want their customers to be able to trust them to store their data in a private and secure
manner," Castro said.
Vodafone’s
report is also seen by some as an effort to turn the page on the
company’s embarrassing role in the protests that toppled Egyptian
strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011. As the protests raged, Vodafone
bombarded its Egyptian subscribers with pro-government text messages. At
the time, the company said it had no choice but to comply, but was
severely criticized for its actions. A change in culture followed.
"They
took a hard lesson there," said Cynthia Wong, a senior internet
researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Even if the government is the
ultimate problem, they realized they needed to take steps to mitigate
harm to their users."
Civil rights advocates applauded Vodafone
for releasing the report, and cracking open the debate, even as they
expressed alarm at the infringements into civil rights.
"For
governments to access phone calls at the flick of a switch is
unprecedented and terrifying," said Shami Chakrabarti, director of the
human rights group Liberty, 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.
Though
some of the governments included in the report were able to block
disclosure of any aspect of how interception was conducted, the report
is unique in that it offers insight into how governments conduct
surveillance.
Though some of the U.S. operators, such as AT&T
and Verizon offered information amid the Snowden allegations, the level
of detail is minuscule compared with Friday’s report, Wong said.
Civil
rights advocates weren’t the only ones applauding Vodafone’s actions.
Norway’s Telenor Group, which also has operations across Eastern Europe
and Asia, offered support, noting governments have the ultimate
responsibility to act.
The countries included in the report are:
Albania, Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Congo, Egypt, Fiji,
France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Kenya,
Lesotho, Malta, Mozambique, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal,
Qatar, Romania, South Africa, Spain, Tanzania, Turkey and the U.K.
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Associated Press Writers Raphael Satter in London, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.