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Telecommunications giant Vodafone has disclosed in a transparency report that the governments of several nations have direct access to communications on their networks, and do not require a formal legal process such as obtaining search warrants in order to monitor the transmissions.

“Our customers have a right to privacy which is enshrined in international human rights law and standards and enacted through national laws. Respecting that right is one of our highest priorities: it is integral to the Vodafone Code of Conduct which everyone who works for us has to follow at all times,” the company said in a statement.

“However, in every country in which we operate, we have to abide by the laws of those countries which require us to disclose information about our customers to law enforcement agencies or other government authorities, or to block or restrict access to certain services. Those laws are designed to protect national security and public safety or to prevent or investigate crime and terrorism, and the agencies and authorities that invoke those laws insist that the information demanded from communications operators such as Vodafone is essential to their work.”

The disclosure was published in the company’s first Law Enforcement Disclosure Report which government agency data access requests form April 1, 2013 to March 31, 2014, and reveals the company has received several thousand requests from nearly 30 countries to provide data about communications and customer accounts.

“Refusal to comply with a country’s laws is not an option. 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. Our employees who live and work in the country concerned may also be at risk of criminal sanctions, including imprisonment,” the report continued.

“We therefore have to balance our responsibility to respect our customers’ right to privacy against our legal obligation to respond to the authorities’ lawful demands as well as our duty of care to our employees, recognising throughout our broader responsibilities as a corporate citizen to protect the public and prevent harm.”

The company says the transparency report is intended to:

  • explain the principles, policies and processes we follow when responding to demands from agencies and authorities that we are required to assist with their law enforcement and intelligence-gathering activities
  • explain the nature of some of the most important legal powers invoked by agencies and authorities in our countries of operation
  • disclose the aggregate number of demands we received over the last year in each of our countries of operation unless prohibited from doing so or unless a government or other public body already discloses such information (an approach we explain later in this report)
  • cite the relevant legislation which prevents us from publishing this information in certain countries

Needless to say, the disclosure will be fodder for more debate on how to maintain a balance between privacy and security.

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