Vodafone, the world’s second largest mobile phone group, has revealed the existence of secret permanent access to its networks from government agencies in at least six of the 29 countries in which it operates.
Vodafone says that in those countries authorities have inserted their own equipment into the network or have diverted all data through government systems so they can permanently access customers' communications.
Vodafone did not name the countries, saying it feared that governments could revoke licenses to operate and in some cases pursue legal action against Vodafone employees. It did, however, name a number of countries which had made it legal to demand such unfettered access - Albania, Egypt, Hungary, Ireland and Qatar.
Under Australian law, interception of telecommunications is illegal without specific authorisation. But that doesn’t mean our police and intelligence agencies aren’t heavily involved in surveillance.
According to Vodafone, Australian agencies made 685,757 requests for details about calls, such as where they were made and to whom. It intercepted 3,389 calls.
These numbers may seem modest, but in fact they are quite high when you consider Vodafone only has some 5 million customers in Australia. In Britain where Vodafone has 20 million customers it received fewer requests (514,608) and made fewer (2,760) interceptions.
The growth of such surveillance and its increasingly global sweep is one of the chief threats to civil liberties in our times.