Vodafone: governments use secret cables to tap phones

Vodafone: governments use secret cables to tap phones

Government agencies are able to listen to phone conversations live and even track the location of citizens without warrants using secret cables connected directly to network equipment, admits Vodafone today

By Matthew Sparkes, Deputy Head of Technology 10:20AM BST 06 Jun 2014

Government agencies are able to listen to phone conversations live and even track the location of citizens without warrants using secret cables connected directly to network equipment, admits Vodafone today.

The company said that secret wires have been connected to its network and those belonging to competitors, giving government agencies the ability to tap in to phone and broadband traffic. In many countries this is mandatory for all telecoms companies, it said.

Vodafone is today publishing its first Law Enforcement Disclosure Report which will describe exactly how the governments it deals with are eavesdropping on citizens. It is calling for an end to the use of “direct access” eavesdropping and transparency on the number of warrants issued giving access to private data.

The company said that the 29 countries it operates in have different laws that demand that they restrict or block certain access to customers, or allow governments to directly access information about them. Refusal to comply with those laws was “not an option”, it said, as those countries could then stop them from operating within its borders.

In some countries this means giving access to the content of phone calls and other electronic communications, or access to metadata such as the number of calls made, the numbers they were made to and the location of the caller when those calls were placed. In some countries, around six that Vodafone does business with but not including the UK, they are made to provide a "direct access" cable straight into their network to allow governments to siphon off any data they wish, without having to issue a warrant.

Vodafone's group privacy officer, Stephen Deadman, told the Guardian: "These pipes exist, the direct access model exists.

"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.

"We need to debate how we are balancing the needs of law enforcement with the fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizens. The ideal is we get a much more informed debate going, and we do all of that without putting our colleagues in danger."

In the UK it is thought that a "direct access" pipe would be illegal, as warrants must be issued prior to collecting any data. But various legislation can grant warrants to intercept data in the interests of national security, to prevent or detect crime or disorder, in the interests of the "economic wellbeing" of the UK, to protect public safety or to protect public health.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, often called a "snoopers' charter", gives various bodies a mandate to request this data, including the Charity Commission, local councils, the Postal Services Commission and the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust.

Vodafone's report reveals that the UK government was granted 2,760 warrants to tap communications content - listeing to actuall call content - and 514,608 warrants to intercept communications metadata.

Some of the countries in which Vodafone operates, such as Egypt, India, Qatar, Romania, South Africa and Turkey make it illegal to disclose any information about how interception is carried out, or how often.

Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International, said: "While governments have starved this debate over surveillance by saying nothing and denying everything, some companies have acted more responsibly by bringing data to the table. Vodafone is taking a commendable step by taking this issue on at an international scale. And they are trying to identify the legal basis for governments' claimed powers. What we are now discovering is that the picture is even more bleak than previously thought. Governments around the world are unashamedly abusing privacy by demanding access to communications and data, and alarmingly, sometimes granting themselves direct access to the networks.

“Now that Vodafone has been more open, the entire industry has cover to take the necessary next step of pushing back. Pushing back against bad requests is a start, pushing back against bad laws is the next step. It should start at home, as the UK continues to be a black mark on the global map of mass surveillance with GCHQ's tapping directly into Vodafone's cables that carry our communications across the world.

“The usefulness of transparency reports hinges on governments abiding by the rule of law. We now know that these reports only provide a limited picture of what is going on.”


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