Vodafone Group PLC, one of the world's largest cell phone companies, revealed details about the scope of government snooping into phone networks Friday, saying authorities in some countries are able to directly access an operator's network without seeking permission.
The Britain-based company outlined the details in a report that is described as the first of its kind, covering 29 countries — in Europe, Africa and Asia — in which it directly operates. It gives one of the most comprehensive known looks to date on how governments monitor the mobile phone communications of their citizens.
The most explosive revelation was that in a small number of countries, authorities require direct access to an operator's network — bypassing legal processes such as warrants. The Vodafone report did not name the countries.
"In those countries, Vodafone will not receive any form of demand for lawful interception access as the relevant agencies and authorities already have permanent access to customer communications via their own direct link," the report said.
Vodafone did not name the six countries for legal reasons. It added that in a number of countries including Egypt, India, Romania, South Africa and Turkey it could not disclose any information related to wiretapping or interception.
The Vodafone report, which is incomplete because many governments will not allow the company to disclose requests, also linked to already-published national data which showed Britain and Australia making hundreds of thousands of requests.
The report showed that of the countries in which it operates, EU member Italy made the most requests for communication data.
Germany, which expressed outrage when it was revealed last year that U.S. intelligence services had listened into the calls of Chancellor Angela Merkel, also made requests to listen in to conversations and collect the data around them, such as where the calls were made and how long they lasted.
The report reflects concerns now being raised regarding privacy rights around the world. Though Vodafone is a global company, it consists of separate subsidiaries, all of which are subject to domestic laws of the countries in which it operates.
"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," the company said in the report. "We hope that ... disclosures in this report will help inform that debate."
In the cases of the six countries, the company said government agencies had inserted their own equipment into the Vodafone network, or diverted Vodafone's data traffic through government systems, to enable them to listen into calls, and determine where they were made.
The findings will alarm civil rights advocates already up in arms over the revelations of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency systems administrator whose leaks have exposed some of the agency's most sensitive spying operations.
Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the human rights group Liberty, described the findings as a worst-case scenario infringement of civil rights.
"For governments to access phone calls at the flick of a switch is unprecedented and terrifying," Chakrabarti said in a statement, adding that the Snowden revelations showed that the Internet was already being treated as "fair game."
"Bluster that all is well is wearing pretty thin – our analogue laws need a digital overhaul," she said.
The company attached a number of caveats to the report, arguing that it is governments, not communications operators, who have the responsibility to offer greater transparency on demands for data.
The company contended that no single operator has the whole picture. It also said different operators have different ways of reporting statistical data — or may choose not to publish it at all.
"After months of detailed analysis, it has become clear that there is, in fact, very little coherence and consistency in law and agency and authority practice, even between neighboring EU Member States," the report said. There are also big differences between governments on the best way to improve transparency.
Though the United States is not one of the countries assessed in the report, the study comes at a time when other businesses are expressing concern about U.S. use of communications data. Executives in Silicon Valley, for example, have stepped up pressure on President Barack Obama to curb government surveillance programs that collect information off the Internet.
Twitter Inc., LinkedIn Corp., AOL Inc., Google Inc., Apple Inc., Yahoo Inc., Facebook Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are pushing for tighter controls over electronic espionage — fearing that eavesdropping threatens the technology industry's financial livelihood.