Snowden’s recent revelation over how government agencies can bug a cellphone even when it is switched off has left hundreds and thousands of citizens horrified upon the extent of government snooping. A day since his revelations, Vodafone has finally admitted that government agencies exploit on wire taps to monitor its customer’s calls all across Europe and several countries outside of the continent.
Although, the British operator hasn’t exactly revealed which of the 29 European territories it operates in have been tapped, the network is hoping to fight the escalating use of secret mass surveillance on citizen’s communications by disclosing the extent of government snooping practices.
In a 40,000 word “Law Enforcement Disclosure Report” released today, the company details on how surveillance wires have been connected directly to its network, thereby allowing communication and whereabouts of customers be tracked. Vodafone has not named the countries involved since certain administration in their respective regions could hit back by imprisoning its staff. Privacy campaigners have called the revelations a “nightmare scenario” that confirmed their worst fears on the extent of snooping.
"For governments to access phone calls at the flick of a switch are unprecedented and terrifying," said the Liberty director, Shami Chakrabarti.”Edward Snowden revealed the internet was already treated as fair game. Bluster that all is well is wearing pretty thin – our analogue laws need a digital overhaul."
It is unlawful to disclose any information related to wiretapping or interception of the content of phone calls as well as messages in Albania, Egypt, Hungary, India, Malta, Qatar, Romania, South Africa and Turkey.
Direct-access systems do not require any sort of warrant, leaving companies with no information about the identity or the number of customers targeted. Mass surveillance can occur on any telecom network without agencies having to substantiate their intrusion to the companies involved.
Telecom Industry sources, reveal insights that sometimes, the direct-access, or pipe or any such equipment can be in a locked room in a network’s central data or one of its local exchanges or ‘switches’. The staff working in such locked room can be employed by telecom firm, but have a certain state security clearance, leaving them unable to discuss any aspect of their work with the rest of the company. Vodafone mentions that it requires all of its employees to follow ‘code of conduct’; however secrecy often leads to not getting certain information verified.
Government agencies can also go through thousands of conversation into data centra, even before routing them on to the operator.
“"These are the nightmare scenarios that we were imagining," said Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International. Privacy International has sought legal action against the British government over mass surveillance. "I never thought the telecommunications companies would be so complicit. 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."
Vodafone's group privacy officer, Stephen Deadman, said: "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."
Vodafone is now calling for all direct-access pipes to be disconnected, and seeking laws to impose on the same. The British Telecom company says that “government should discourage agencies and authorities from seeking direct access to an operator's communications infrastructure without a lawful mandate”. It argues that all states much publish annual data on the number of such snooping warrants issued.
Software firms like Apple and Microsoft have published number of warrants they receive, since the revelations came to light. However, telecom companies, which need government licenses to put it public have been sluggish to respond.
Verizon and AT&T have published data, in the US on their domestic operations. Vodafone however, is the first to have produced a global survey. [Image] It shows that in Italy, Vodafone received about 606,000 metadata requests, one of the highest. Czech Republic next with 196,000 warrants issued nationally. Tanzania made 99,000 metadata requests from the company.
Snowden, joined hands with Google, Reddit, Mozilla and many more tech companies and privacy groups on Thursday to call for strengthening of privacy rights online in a “Reset the net” campaign.