Cellphone operator wades into surveillance debate

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FILE – In this Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009 file photo, people walk by a Vodafone branch in central London. Vodafone, one of the world’s largest cellphone companies, on Friday, June 6, 2014 revealed the scope of government snooping into phone networks, saying authorities in some countries are able to directly access an operator’s network without seeking permission. (AP Photo/Sang Tan, File)

FILE – In this Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009 file photo, people walk by a Vodafone branch in central London. Vodafone, one of the world’s largest cellphone companies, on Friday, June 6, 2014 revealed the scope of government snooping into phone networks, saying authorities in some countries are able to directly access an operator’s network without seeking permission. (AP Photo/Sang Tan, File)

FILE- In this Wednesday, April 9, 2008 file photo, Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group Liberty, gives an address on the British government’s counter-terror proposals in London. Vodafone, one of the world’s largest cellphone companies, revealed the scope of government snooping into phone networks Friday, saying authorities in some countries are able to directly access an operator’s network without seeking permission. The company outlined the details in a report that is described as the first of its kind, covering 29 countries in which it directly operates. It gives the most comprehensive look to date on how governments monitor the communications of their citizens. The most explosive revelation was that in a small number of countries, authorities require direct access to an operator’s network — bypassing legal niceties like warrants. It did not name the countries. Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the human rights group Liberty, described the findings as a worst-case scenario infringement into civil rights. “For governments to access phone calls at the flick of a switch is unprecedented and terrifying,” Chakrabarti said in a statement, adding that the Snowden revelations showed the Internet was already being treated as “fair game.” (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, file)

People walk past a Vodafone shop in London, on Friday, June 6, 2014. Vodafone, one of the world’s largest cellphone companies, revealed the scope of government snooping into phone networks Friday, saying authorities in some countries are able to directly access an operator’s network without seeking permission. The company outlined the details in a report that is described as the first of its kind, covering 29 countries in which it directly operates. It gives the most comprehensive look to date on how governments monitor the communications of their citizens. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

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NEW YORK (AP) — Wireless carrier Vodafone Group PLC is performing a tricky balancing maneuver by publishing a report on government surveillance of its subscribers in 29 countries — a release that reveals more than first meets the eye.

In the report published Friday, Vodafone, which has unparalleled global reach for a cellphone company, said six countries have demanded direct access to its network. That cuts Vodafone’s employees out of the surveillance process, removing one of the hurdles that can curb government overreach.

Vodafone would not say which countries have established these direct links. But in an exhaustively researched appendix to the report, the U.K.-based company sheds light on the legal frameworks that surround government interception in the 29 countries. The appendix reveals that six countries — Albania, Egypt, Hungary, Ireland, Qatar and Turkey — have provisions that allow authorities to request unfettered access.

In two other countries, India and the U.K., legal provisions are unclear as to whether government officials are allowed to have direct access, according to the report.

The report is remarkable not so much for what it reveals about the extent of law enforcement and intelligence agency surveillance, but for the comparisons it enables across countries. The report also highlights six countries for which Vodafone was unable to disclose any statistics on warrants from the government or other requests: Romania, Qatar, Egypt, India, South Africa and Turkey.

By contrast, Vodafone’s report is almost superfluous for some Western European countries, like Germany, where the government already publishes statistics on how many requests it sends phone companies.

Wiretapping of phones and accessing of call records for law-enforcement purposes is a decades-old and accepted practice even in the most open democracies. With backing from courts, police can request cooperation from phone companies to access communications.

But in developing countries like Congo, Ghana and Lesotho, Vodafone doesn’t have the capability to support wiretapping, since governments haven’t requested it.

By making its report public, together with a disclosure of requests for information, Vodafone is entering the international debate about balancing the rights of privacy against security. Rather than being stuck with responsibility and backlash when citizens realize their data has been scooped up without their knowledge, Vodafone decided it was time to push for a debate.

Vodafone’s report comes one year after former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden revealed that U.S. and other countries’ intelligence agencies indiscriminately gather and store huge amounts of data from phone calls and Internet communications.

“Companies are recognizing they have a responsibility to disclose government access,” Daniel Castro, senior analyst for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington. “This is new.”

Vodafone’s report is also seen by some as an effort to turn the page on the company’s embarrassing role in the protests that toppled Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011. As the protests raged, the government forced Vodafone to bombard its Egyptian subscribers with propaganda text messages. The company said it had no choice but to comply, but was severely criticized for its actions.

“They took a hard lesson there,” said Cynthia Wong, a senior internet researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Even if the government is the ultimate problem, they realized they needed to take steps to mitigate harm to their users.”

Civil liberties advocates applauded Vodafone for releasing the report and cracking open the debate, even as they expressed alarm at the infringements into civil liberties.

“For governments to access phone calls at the flick of a switch is unprecedented and terrifying,” said

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