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Vodafone discloses government wiretapping

Vodafone Group Plc (NASDAQ:VOD), the largest mobile-phone company operating outside China, released a report disclosing the existence of secret wires that allow government agencies to listen to conversations on its networks in some countries.

In its first law-enforcement disclosure report, Vodafone said 29 governments from Albania to the U.K. asked for access to its network or user data. The requests range from wiretapping, or intercepting calls and messages, to accessing data such as call and Web-browsing records, according to the report covering a year through March 31.

While in most countries Vodafone maintains full operational control over the infrastructure used to enable lawful interception, in “a small number of countries” the law dictates that authorities have direct access to an operator’s network. That means agencies can access networks via their own direct link, without asking for the carrier’s permission or help, Vodafone said.

“This type of unfettered access permits uncontrolled mass surveillance of Vodafone’s customers and anyone in contact with them,” Privacy International, an organization campaigning for privacy and transparency, said in a statement. “This is mass surveillance at its most severe.”

Communications companies began publicly releasing authority requests after documents leaked by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden exposed the range of government surveillance tactics, prompting a public backlash.

Governments’ duty

“One year after the Snowden revelations, this shows again the scale of collection by governments,” European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding told reporters in Luxembourg. “There should not be unregulated, direct and automatic mass access by law enforcement authorities to data of citizens held by private companies -- only where there is a clear suspicion.”

Vodafone didn’t name the countries whose authorities have ability to intercept calls and messages directly. Several of the countries in the report, including Egypt, India and Turkey, forbid disclosing what type and how many requests carriers receive from authorities, Vodafone said. Vodafone said it doesn’t comply with demands that are unlawful.

“In our view, it is governments –- not communications operators –- who hold the primary duty to provide greater transparency on the number of agency and authority demands issued to operators,” Newbury, England-based Vodafone said in the report, which it plans to update annually.

‘Lawful interception’

Deutsche Telekom AG last month published numbers on data handed over to authorities in Germany. The country’s top prosecutor is set to start a formal investigation into whether U.S. intelligence agents tapped Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone, potentially heightening tensions between the two countries over spying.

Of the 29 countries covered by Vodafone’s report, a dozen forbid carriers from disclosing “lawful interception” attempts. Some governments, such as Germany and the U.K., report such numbers themselves. In nine of the countries, Vodafone doesn’t have the capability to intercept communications, for example because local legislation prohibits such technology.

Vodafone reported the number of interception requests for two countries out of 29, with its Spanish unit receiving 24,212 demands and the Czech Republic 7,677.

Government response

The company also reported government requests for communications data, including the locations where phones were used, length of calls and other so-called metadata relating to use of Vodafone’s network.

Vodafone’s Italian unit received 605,601 such requests. The Tanzanian business was asked for such data 98,765 times and Hungary reported 75,938 requests, though the number for that country excludes inquiries related to national security.

Vodafone cited some challenges in putting together the report. In some countries that are experiencing “significant political tension,” it is difficult to inquire about matters related to national security without potentially putting employees at risk of harassment or sanctions, Vodafone said.

Vodafone’s home country defended its interception practices today. Jean-Christophe Gray, spokesman for U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, said that the country’s security services are “operating under clear legal frameworks as well as oversight and scrutiny by independent commissioners and independent parliamentary committee.”

The U.K. forbids Vodafone from disclosing lawful interception attempts. The government’s commission for the interception of communications publishes its own annual survey. Last year, 2,760 communications interception warrants were authorized, according to the report.

Vodafone has more than 400 million customers in countries stretching from the U.K. to South Africa, India to Australia. The only carrier with more users is China Mobile Ltd. Vodafone this year exited the U.S. after selling its stake in Verizon Wireless to Verizon Communications Inc. for $130 billion.

Shares of Vodafone gained 1.7 percent to 207.6 pence at 2:07 p.m. in London.

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