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Vodafone privacy disclosures spurs other carriers to follow

LiveMint logoLiveMint 09-06-2014 Amy Thomson

London/ Portland:Vodafone Group Plc’s sweeping disclosure of wiretapping on its network worldwide means technology and phone companies could follow by revealing how much access governments are seeking to phone calls, data and e-mails.

Deutsche Telekom AG, with 145 million wireless customers in Europe and the US, said it may increase disclosure after Vodafone last week released its law-enforcement transparency report, the most comprehensive by a global telecommunications carrier. Vodafone said 29 governments from Albania to the UK asked for access to its network or user data, with requests ranging from intercepting calls and messages to accessing data such as conversation and Web-browsing records.

The report underscores how the debate over personal data privacy has shifted one year after documents leaked by former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden shed new light on the extent of government spying. While companies like Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and phone-service providers were long seen as being the primary culprits, Snowden’s revelations gave companies the ammunition for laying blame with governments.

“They want to put the onus back on the government and say: ‘It’s not us,’ said Chetan Sharma,” an independent wireless analyst in Issaquah, Washington. “It does put pressure on other companies to be transparent, so their customers know what’s going on.”

Vodafone said the document, which covers the year through 31 March and took months to compile, sought to address reports alleging the Newbury, England-based carrier’s role in government surveillance programs.

Deutsche telekom

Deutsche Telekom last month published its own data on police and court requests for user information in its German home market. Alexia Sailer, a spokeswoman for Bonn-based Deutsche Telekom, said the carrier is reviewing disclosure for markets outside of Germany.

Representatives for BT Group Plc, operator of Britain’s largest landline network, Orange SA of France, Spain’s Telefonica SA and Telecom Italia SpA declined to say whether they plan to step up disclosure. All of the carriers said that they adhere to local laws regarding handing over customer data.

Vodafone’s report sparked outrage from privacy groups—particularly after revelations that six countries have direct access to its network, allowing officials to snoop on users without the carrier’s permission or help. Matt Morgan, a Vodafone spokesman, declined to identify the nations, citing potential retaliation by governments that may put employees in those countries in danger.

Direct access

In an 88-page appendix to its report compiled by law firm Hogan Lovells, Vodafone detailed the rules countries can use to gain direct network access without carriers’ oversight. It said some countries use perceived national security risks to justify those laws to override other protections.

Albania, Egypt, Hungary, Ireland and Qatar all have provisions allowing authorities to gain access without Vodafone’s control. Turkish authorities can entirely suspend the right to privacy in communication in emergency situations, according to the document.

“One year after the Snowden revelations, this shows again the scale of collection by governments,” European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding told reporters on 6 June.

“While governments such as Australia, Germany and the UK already publish some requests for data access, creating a common standard for government disclosures in Europe is necessary,” said Stefano Mele, a lawyer who specializes in technology and privacy at Carnelutti Law Firm in Milan.

Common rules?

“While it may be understandable that a government engages in espionage activities against foreign entities, it is very disturbing behaviour for those states to conduct massive collection of information on their citizens,” said Mele. “This is why work on a European level on common rules regulating this kind of activity and behaviour is now an indispensable step.”

The UK forbids Vodafone from disclosing lawful interception attempts. A government agency publishes its own annual survey. Last year, 2,760 communications interception warrants were authorized, according to the report.

Google’s most recent transparency report showed 27,477 requests for use data from governments and courts around the world in the second half of 2013. The US accounted for 38%, or 10,574 requests.

AT&T, Verizon

AT&T Inc., the largest US phone company, received 301,816 demands for information from US federal, state and local courts, including subpoenas, court orders and search warrants, in all of 2013. It had 22 requests from outside the US

Verizon Communications Inc. reported 321,545 subpoenas, orders and warrants from law enforcement last year, in addition to more than 1,000 national security letters. Verizon said that outside the US, the country with the most inquiries was Germany. It made almost 3,000 requests last year, followed by France’s 1,347 and Belgium’s 473.

By contrast, in the 12 months ended 31 March, Vodafone’s Italian unit alone received 605,601 requests for communications data such as the locations where phones were used, length of calls and other so-called meta-data related to use of its network. Bloomberg

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