Vodafone revelations: government snooping “bad for business”

Vodafone on Friday piled pressure on its peers for transparency in how much access governments and authorities have to national telecommunications networks. The UK-based carrier released a substantial document revealing the level of government access required in each of the 29 countries the company holds an operating licence in.

In the majority of cases the law requires some form of court order for wiretapping to occur but in a small number of cases governments have constant and unlimited access to the network. Vodafone was unable to identify which countries this affects however as it is bound by local gagging orders.

The revelations prompted Viviane Reding, Vice President of the European Commission and more recently champion of the ‘right to be forgotten’ to comment that one year after the Snowden revelations, the report shows again the scale of collection by Governments of data being held by private companies.

“Data access should always be framed by clear laws or judicial warrants. 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. Not with a hoover but with tweezers,” she said.

“The current situation is also bad for business. Companies need legal certainty and trust from their customers. They need to be able to promise their customers privacy. Data protection generates trust – it is thus a profitable business model.”

Indeed, Vodafone’s revelations appear to be motivated by a desire to shift the suspicion back to the governments in question.

“Tensions have been heightened as a consequence of the allegations made by the former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden. Media reports of widespread government surveillance and data ‘harvesting’ by intelligence agencies have triggered a significant public debate about the transparency, proportionality and legitimacy – even lawfulness – of the alleged activities of a number of high-profile agencies,” the company said in its report.

“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.”

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The company also said that while it set out to create a single disclosure report covering 29 countries on a coherent basis, after months of detailed analysis, it found that there is very little coherence and consistency in law and practice, even between neighbouring EU Member States. Moreover, there are also highly divergent views between governments on the most appropriate response to public demands for greater transparency, and public attitudes in response to government surveillance allegations can also vary greatly from one country to another.

By way of an example, Vodafone made a special comment on its Egyptian operation, which received criticism during a period of civil unrest earlier in the year when the company was required to shut down its local network along with its peers.

“The events in Egypt have raised questions with regard to the role and responsibilities of network operators during the recent period of unrest across Egypt,” the company said. “In common with all other telecoms operators, Vodafone was formally instructed on the morning of Friday 28 January to shut down the mobile network in specified areas. Vodafone had legal advice to the effect that the Egyptian authorities had the legal power to require compliance.” Moreover, the Egyptian authorities also had the technological capability to close down the network themselves, which would have made the return to operations more difficult, Vodafone argued.

“On this basis, Vodafone therefore judged that the interests of our employees in Egypt, and our customers and others wanting to use our network, would be least badly served by complying as by doing so we were able to retain a legal position from which to negotiate with the authorities and importantly, retain technical control of the network.”

Vodafone’s move could mark the beginning of a trend to put more pressure for transparency on governments. Already in Germany and Australia other operators are releasing similar details of their own and on Monday, Scandinavian operator Telenor revealed that last month’s outage on Facebook was actually government mandated as a the authorities sought to clamp down on critical messages. All operators were understood to have received the same order to block access to Facebook as the Thai military staged a government coup.



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