Civil Liberties

Governments Constantly Tap Your Calls, Warns International Telecom


chotda / Foter

Governments frequently tap private communications, block users' access to content and services, and that's just what we can legally be told, UK-based telecommunications giant Vodafone reveals in its first law enforcement disclosure report. The report, which the company says really should be issued by the governments that impose demands on communications companies, calls on officials to be more transparent in their surveillance efforts. It also asks for an end to the practice of governments tapping directly into communications networks, bypassing the operators themselves and making monitoring and disclosure virtually impossible.

Vodafone sold its interest in Verizon Wireless last year, and no longer operates in the United States, so the report doesn't detail American practices. But it does reveal surveillance at least comparable to that of the NSA in the 29 countries in which the company provides services and has received government demands for cooperation in the past year.

All governments have incorporated national security exceptions into national legislation to give legal powers to agencies and authorities. Some governments have constrained those powers to limit the human rights impact; others have created much wider-ranging powers with substantially greater human rights impacts. Meanwhile, agencies 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.

Those powers can be very extensive—so much so that the report includes a legal annexe detailing the laws and agencies in various countries authorizing and carrying out interceptions. In Australia, for instance, the Telecommunications Act of 1997, the Australian Security Intelligence Act 1979, and the Crimes Act 1914 all authorize real-time interception of communications under different circumstances varying from law enforcement to national security.

In the U.K., the Telecommunications Act 1984 (yes, very appropriate) gives the state broad power to issue orders to telecommunications companies and forbid them to breathe a word about the matter.

France requires that telecoms store data about users' communications for a year, and a new law taking effect in 2015 requires companies to provide real-time location data to intelligence agencies—essentially formalizing the use of cellphones and other devides as tracking beacons.

Oversight of powers to intercept communications and force data disclosures varies tremendously from country to country, as you would expect from a list that includes established democracies alongside overt police states.

Because of the difficulty in tracking the sort of content that governments block, the report doesn't delve deeply into access restrictions. Very often filters are placed in parts of the network that companies can't monitor, and telling people about banned information and services is itself forbidden in many countries.

"Refusal to comply with a country's laws is not an option," Vodafone's report says, rather defensively. It's a claim that has become something of a mantra for companies pressured to reveal data about users or otherwise submit to controversial government controls, especially in the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations about snooping by the National Security agency and its overseas partners.

If the claim isn't completely true, it's close enough, since most exceptions have been firms, like Lavabit, that have ceased operation rather than comply.

Telling the public about the full range of intrusions into private communications also isn't an option, since some disclosures are illegal in certain countries. Defiance threatens not just consequences for corporate wallets, but even personal danger. "In some countries, individual Vodafone employees would be put at risk," the report warns. The country operates in garden spots including Albania and South Africa, so emphasize the word "risk."

It's also not clear how many governments directly tap communications networks, since that capability can't be monitored by the company. Hungary appears to allow such monitoring, the U.K. might (separate reports say it does), while Germany and Spain appear to have no legal provisions for such access. But how officials interpret their countries' laws is up to them.