Vodafone, the world's second largest wireless carrier, released a comprehensive Law Enforcement Disclosure Report on the official policies and eavesdropping practices of government agencies in 29 of the countries where it provides phone services. In some instances, agencies can listen in on live conversations without a warrant and with minimal effort while, in others, they can track mobile users.
"Our customers have a right to privacy which is enshrined in international human rights and standards and enacted through national laws," Vodafone stated in the opening of its announcement of the report June 6. It then added a very big "however," explaining that despite consumers' rights, it's obligated to comply with the demands of government authorities.
"Refusal to comply with a country's laws is not an option," Vodafone stated.
While offering the transparency that it does, Vodafone went on to state that the onus for such reports really lies on governments, as no single carrier can provide a full picture of the extent of an agency's practices. Further, different operators have different approaches to recording and reporting the same information.
"In countries where the law on disclosure is unclear, some operators may choose not to publish certain categories of demand information on the basis of that operator's appetite for legal risk … leading to two very different data sets in the public domain," Vodafone wrote.
The company explained that local carriers in Austria and Germany recently published reports, which Vodafone used to compare against its own data. While in some instances the volume of government demand was comparable, in others, it was clear that certain categories of demands had been omitted altogether.
In order for reporting from authorities to be meaningful, Vodafone added, it must be independently scrutinized and verified, have a clearly explained methodology and include the demands issued to all operators within the jurisdiction in question.
With the number of devices connected to each individual continuing to rise, the most meaningful and least ambiguous statistic that governments can provide is the number of individual warrants served in a year. "In effect," writes Vodafone, "a formal record of each occasion that the state has decided it is necessary to intrude into the private affairs of its citizens."
Country by Country Report
The Vodafone report offered a significant, country-by-country explanation of the laws relevant to communications interception and the like. In Albania, for example, "the Albanian Intelligence Agency or the relevant minister cannot implement an interception using only their own resources."
In Belgium, there were two instances of communications data demands but no demands for lawful interception assistance; in Fiji, there were 760 communications data demands but no lawful interception demands; and in Spain, there were 48,679 demands for communications data and 24,212 lawful interception demands.
In the United Kingdom, it's unlawful for Vodafone to disclose lawful interception demands, and the country publishes its own report on communications data demands. In Germany, the government publishes its own reports on both types of demands.
Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and South Africa are among the countries that prohibit Vodafone from disclosing either type of information demand.
"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," wrote Vodafone. "We hope that … the country-by-country disclosures in this report will help inform that debate."