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Vodafone reveals extent of government snooping

July 2014

Vodafone is calling on governments to introduce laws compelling them to request a mobile phone company’s permission before accessing its customers’ calls and data.

Anti-snooping laws, it says, should then require governments to undergo “regular scrutiny by an independent authority”.
Vodafone, the world’s second largest mobile phone operator, serving 29 countries, has revealed in a new report that a handful of regimes, not named, can snoop whenever they wish without interception requests or warrants.

The company says: “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.”

The report shows that, of the governments that seek permission, nine publish the number of their approaches.

Last year the UK government made 2,760 interception requests and 514,608 communications data requests to all operators. Italy made 139,962 interception requests altogether, and 605,601 communication requests to Vodafone alone. In the US the communications company Verizon received 321,545 customer data requests.

Several companies refused to give information, including Egypt, India, Qatar, Romania, South Africa and Turkey.

The report exposed how much the data collected, known as metadata, can show about a customer.

It said: “It is possible to learn a great deal about an individual’s movements, interests and relationships from an analysis of metadata … In many countries, agencies and authorities therefore have legal powers to order operators to disclose large volumes of this kind of communications data.”

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the UK human rights group Liberty, said the findings were a “worst-case scenario infringement into civil rights”.

She protested: “For governments to access phone calls at the flick of a switch is unprecedented and terrifying. Bluster that all is well is wearing pretty thin. Our analogue laws need a digital overhaul.”

Vodafone’s report observed: “The need for governments to balance their duty to protect the state and its citizens against their duty to protect individual privacy is now the focus of a significant global public debate.”

Despite its objections to intrusion, Vodafone will continue to grant official requests rather than quitting any country.
It pointed out: “If we do not comply with a lawful demand for assistance, governments can remove our licence to operate, preventing us from providing services to our customers.”


Picture credit: Aleksandar Stojanov,

Europe | Privacy


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