Vodafone admits to giving governments direct access to its phone networks

The U.S. may be getting a lot of flak, but apparently, spying is an international game. Vodafone, the world’s second largest mobile carrier, revealed that some countries have required unfettered access to its phone networks. This means that some surveillance agencies have the ability to monitor people’s conversations without having to send a request or have any oversight. Usually, governments are required to send legal notices to compel a phone operator to provide customer data.

Vodafone operates in over 30 countries across Europe, Africa, and Asia, but declined to name the governments that required such an arrangement. However, it said that six countries have imposed the standard. In all of the countries in its network, Italy made the most requests for communications data (information on a call’s duration, location and destination) at 605,601.

“In most countries, Vodafone maintains full operational control over the technical infrastructure used to enable lawful interception upon receipt of an agency or authority demand,” the company said in its Law Enforcement Disclosure Report. “However, in a small number of countries the law dictates that specific agencies and authorities must have direct access to an operator’s network, bypassing any form of operational control over lawful interception on the part of the operator. 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 company claims that its hands are tied when it comes to request for information from authorities. “… in every country in which we operate, we have to abide by the laws of those countries which require us to disclose information about our customers to law enforcement agencies or other government authorities, or to block or restrict access to certain services,” the company said.

“Refusal to comply with a country’s laws is not an option. If we do not comply with a lawful demand for assistance, governments can remove our license to operate, preventing us from providing services to our customers.”

Last year, the company was pinpointed in Edward Snowden’s leaks as one of the mobile phone carriers that handed over customer data to British spy agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). The documents revealed that Vodafone was one of the companies that gave the GCHQ access to undersea cables, which carried phone and Internet communications. Earlier this week, a report from The Register claimed that Vodafone was one of the biggest earners of secret payments from the GCHQ. The company was said to have been paid millions annually for aiding the surveillance organization.

In March of last year, shortly after the Snowden leaks came out, Vodafone denied revealing any information unless compelled to do so. This has proven to be inaccurate because it has limited control over state surveillance in its network in some countries.

“Whilst Vodafone must comply with those obligations (as must all operators), Vodafone does not disclose any customer data in any jurisdiction unless legally required to do so. Questions related to national security are a matter for governments not telecommunications operators,” a company spokesman said.