In a tell-all report, one of the world’s biggest mobile phone companies revealed how international governments use secret wiretaps to access to over 400 million customers’ phone conversations, showing the widespread extent of global mass surveillance.
The United Kingdom-based Vodafone released a comprehensive report Friday detailing how multiple governments across in almost 30 countries across Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia request phone data en masse often without explanation.
According to the report, a direct-line connection to its network and other telecommunications companies let at least six unidentified countries listen to and record calls. The wiretaps were requested without a warrant or justification, including any information on how many customers would be involved, Vodafone said.
Governments don’t have access or control of Vodafone’s entire network, but some agencies in certain countries are allowed to override the company’s control. But those agencies can only access phone calls and records in their country, the report said. In most cases, the company operates the equipment to intercept calls on governments’ behalves.
The report divulges data on 29 countries, at least 10 of which have never publicly released information on their surveillance behavior. Italy collected the most Vodafone phone metadata and content, according to the report, but Australia, the U.K. and Czech Republic collected the most national metadata.
Because of varying laws, some information wasn’t disclosed, and even the reported numbers may not paint a full picture, Vodafone said. The report leaves out the data-collection habits of nine countries — Albania, Egypt, Hungary, India, Malta, Qatar, Romania, South Africa and Turkey — because its illegal to disclose surveillance practices.
Tech and telecommunications companies are feeling more pressure to disclose government requests for data as public concerns about privacy escalate both in the U.S. and abroad. Last year’s revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency’s dragnet phone metadata collection program has fueled a rise in demand for greater transparency and better privacy protections regarding tech and telecommunications companies’ data collection. More people have started using encryption, or otherwise tried to make themselves anonymous online, to shield their movements from third parties, including the government.
U.S.-based tech companies such as Facebook and Google have become increasingly outspoken about the need to protect consumer data since news broke about how companies gave the NSA backdoor access to its data centers. Tech and telecom companies are lobbying for more freedom to report the kinds of requests they get from law enforcement agencies.
That transparency was a concern when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a revised version of the USA Freedom Act last month. In a previous version, tech and telecom companies would have been allowed to be more specific about the number and kinds of requests that were made, but was somewhat restricted in a last-minute edit.