Vodafone and secret government wiretaps: 'Nightmare scenario'

Vodafone has admitted that it and other telecom companies have secret wires that provide governments with live wiretaps into wireless conversations. In some of the 29 countries in which it provides wireless services, Vodafone and others are required by law to provide these wires.

The countries include the U.K., France, Italy, plus others in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. The list does not include the United States.

In its first law enforcement disclosure report released today, Vodafone says it’s being more transparent especially in light of the Edward Snowden leaks that exposed government surveillance in the United States and elsewhere. “Questions have also been asked about the role of communications operators such as Vodafone in support of those activities. We hope that this report will provide some of the most important answers,” the British company said. It also said its work on the report has “not been without risk.”

And Vodafone is calling for change: “We are making a call to end direct access as a means of government agencies obtaining people’s communication data,” Stephen Deadman, Vodafone group’s privacy officer, told the Guardian. With direct access, of course, there’s no need for governments to obtain warrants.

While calling the direct wiretapping a “nightmare scenario,” Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International, told the Guardian: “It’s a brave step by Vodafone and hopefully the other telcos will become more brave with disclosure, but what we need is for them to be braver about fighting back against the illegal requests and the laws themselves.”

In the United States, telecom companies such as Verizon, AT&T and others are said to be turning over call records to the NSA and its mass spying operation, which was revealed a year ago in reports based on the Snowden leaks. Several years ago, retired AT&T employee Mark Klein said AT&T was forwarding global Internet traffic from “secret NSA rooms” directly to the U.S. government; after the Snowden leaks last year, he claimed to have been vindicated. Since the publication of the first reports based on the Snowden leaks — a year ago this week, as we wrote yesterday — U.S. telecom and tech companies have released transparency reports that give a peek, although incomplete, into how they cooperate with government requests for information. But the telecom companies have been keeping a low profile when it comes to NSA spying; the tech companies are the ones that have been calling for the government to rein it in.

Correction: A previous version of this post omitted the name of Mark Klein.

Photo:  Vodafone, one of the world’s largest wireless providers, on Friday revealed the scope of government snooping into phone networks, saying authorities in some countries are able to directly access an operator’s network in secret. (Associated Press archives)

Levi Sumagaysay Levi Sumagaysay (4116 Posts)

Levi Sumagaysay is editor of the combined SiliconBeat and Good Morning Silicon Valley. She also helps take care of SiliconValley.com, the Mercury News tech website. Email: lsumagaysay@bayareanewsgroup.com