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7 Jun, 2014 13:46

Vodafone dances around GCHQ in 40,000-word spying confession

Vodafone dances around GCHQ in 40,000-word spying confession

The world’s second-largest mobile phone company has broken its silence over its cooperation with government agencies and their efforts to eavesdrop on unsuspecting customers, but what it fails to mention speaks the loudest.

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Vodafone’s 88-page ‘Law Enforcement Disclosure Report’ reveals how 29 governments around the world use an open back door to eavesdrop on its customers’ private communications.

“[I]n 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 Vodafone reports says. “Those laws are designed to protect national security and public safety or to prevent or investigate crime and terrorism, and the agencies and authorities that invoke those laws insist that the information demanded from communications operators such as Vodafone is essential to their work.”

However, Vodafone’s corporate candidness stopped short of describing its alleged collaboration with GCHQ, Britain’s equivalent of the US National Security Agency.

Snowden’s whistleblowing revealed that GCHQ has tapped into transatlantic fiber optic cables in a secret program, codenamed Tempora, which reportedly allows the British spy agency access to telephone communications and Internet data on millions of people. GCHQ, documents showed, teamed up with seven telecom companies, including Vodafone.

The report provided a rather chilling assessment as to the power of the intelligence agencies when it makes the decision to spy on a private citizen.

AFP Photo / Philippe Huguen

[A]gencies and authorities have the scope to apply advanced analytics techniques to every aspect of an individual’s communications, movements, interests and associations – to the extent that such activity is lawful – yielding a depth of real-time insights into private lives unimaginable two decades ago.”

Concerning Vodafone’s alleged collaboration with the GCHQ, however, it only admits to a hypothetical possibility that spying on its customers had occurred, or was still occurring.

By issuing a warrant to access private information, "there is the possibility that this power is broad enough to permit government direct access to Vodafone’s network," the document admitted.

Vodafone said that in about six of the countries in which it operates, the law either requires telecommunication firms to install direct access wires for external interception, or allows government agencies to do so. It was not willing to divulge the names of those governments.

"These are the nightmare scenarios that we were imagining," Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International, which has taken legal action against the British government over the spying charges, told the Guardian.

"I never thought the telcos [telecom 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."

Reuters / Kieran Doherty

Vodafone’s coming clean inspires Deutsche Telekom

Incidentally, on the same day Vodafone went public with news of its affiliation with government spying efforts, Deutsche Telekom, which has 140 million customers worldwide, has also said it would come clean.

"Deutsche Telekom has initially focused on Germany when it comes to disclosure of government requests. We are currently checking if and to what extent our national companies can disclose information. We intend to publish something similar to Vodafone."

Indeed, Vodafone seems desperate to wants to wash its hands of its past collaboration with intelligence services, laying out its predicament in the transparency report.

"These pipes exist, the direct access model exists,” Vodafone's group privacy officer, Stephen Deadman, told the Guardian. "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.”

On the question of whether GCHQ taps directly into Vodafone’s system, Deadman said such a system would be illegal because British law prohibits intelligence agencies from obtaining information without a warrant. Nevertheless, in what amounts to a potentially massive security loophole, British law permits the indiscriminate collection of information on an unidentified number of targets.

"We need to debate how we are balancing the needs of law enforcement with the fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizens. The ideal is we get a much more informed debate going, and we do all of that without putting our colleagues in danger."

Unfortunately for privacy and civil rights groups, the move toward bringing an end to governments accessing the systems of telecommunication companies would have had a running start had Vodafone and GCHQ admitted to their dangerous liaisons.