Vodafone admitted on Friday that government agencies in some countries listen in on phone conversations without warrants, using secret cables linked to its networks.
India was among 29 countries that sought access to Vodafone's network to intercept calls, text messages and emails last year, the UK-based group said. But the telecom major didn't disclose whether it complied with the Indian requests.
Read: Vodafone says govts have direct access to eavesdrop in some countries
HT was first to report on March 10 that the Union finance ministry had asked the department of telecommunications to examine the possibility of Vodafone sharing details of phone calls and emails with British security agency Government Communications Headquarters.
In its first Law Enforcement Disclosure report, Vodafone said secret wires - or 'pipes' - had been connected to its network and those belonging to competitors, giving government agencies the ability to tap in to phone and broadband traffic.
In many countries this is a mandatory requirement for all telecom companies, it said. In six countries, the governments had direct access to the telecom network and didn't need legal warrants, the report added. Vodafone, however, didn't name the countries.
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Vodafone's group privacy officer, Stephen Deadman, told the Guardian, "These pipes exist, the direct access model exists. 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. If we receive a demand we can push back against the agency. The fact that a government has to issue a piece of paper is an important constraint on how powers are used."
The world's second-largest mobile phone company did not provide statistics for 'lawful interception' and 'communications data' for India - while providing figures for most of the 29 countries - but detailed the legal restrictions under which it operates in the country.
It said the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, along with the Indian Telegraph (Amendment) Rules, 2007, obliged telecom service providers to "maintain extreme secrecy" in matters concerning lawful interception.
Moreover, under several IT legislations, "strict confidentiality" has to be maintained with directions for lawful interception, monitoring, decryption or collection of data traffic. The government can also prevent the publication of aggregate data in relation to lawful interception under the IT Act, 2000.
Reacting to the development, Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International, said, "Vodafone is taking a commendable step by taking this issue on at an international scale. What we are now discovering is that the picture is bleaker than was previously thought. Now that Vodafone has been more open, the entire industry has cover to take the necessary next step of pushing back." Privacy International had recently initiated legal action against the British government over mass surveillance.
Though it respects a customer's right to privacy, Vodafone said it has to abide by a country's laws, which require it to disclose information about customers to law enforcement agencies or other government authorities. "If we do not comply with a lawful demand for assistance, governments can remove our licence to operate, preventing us from providing services to our customers," Vodafone said.
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