British telecommunications company Vodafone published a statement late Thursday revealing the existence of secret government taps to their international network, which allow nations to directly access customer data and conversations.
The 40,000-word disclosure exposes bulk surveillance endeavors among the 29 countries Vodafone services. Many specific details were omitted to appease governments that prohibit disclosing wiretapping details (Albania, Egypt, Hungary, India, Malta, Qatar, Romania, South Africa, and Turkey), and the company reported “very little coherence and consistency in law and agency and authority practice, even between neighboring EU Member States.”
Vodafone is calling on governments to cut of such direct access to their networks, and “amend legislation which enables agencies and authorities to access an operator’s communications infrastructure without the knowledge and direct control of the operator.”
The surveillance outlined in the statement confirms long and widespread speculation that major telecommunications providers have been forced by governments to facilitate bulk, direct surveillance of citizens’ communications seemingly without oversight, probable cause or specific judicial approval.
“These are the nightmare scenarios that we were imagining,” Privacy International Executive Director Gus Hosein said in a statement to The Guardian.
Vodafone’s release comes exactly one year after the first leaks detailing classified bulk surveillance programs from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden were published. Among those leaks were documents revealing that Vodafone and other telecoms granted the Government Communications Headquarters – Britain’s NSA equivalent – access to a network of undersea cables transmitting international com traffic.
The company said that due to their secrecy, Vodafone often complies with government requests “blind” of all contextual information, which makes the process of challenging such requests exceedingly difficult.
“We are making a call to end direct access as a means of government agencies obtaining people’s communication data,” Vodafone group privacy officer Stephen Deadman said in a statement to The Guardian. “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.”