Vodafone Confirms Existence Of Secret Wires For Government E-Surveillance And Eavesdropping Worldwide

PRAVEEN DALAL MANAGING PARTNER OF PERRY4LAW AND CEO OF PTLBFrom time to time media has reported that intelligence agencies around the world are using backdoor access to computers, servers and telecom infrastructures. Special equipments and arrangements have been made to grant intelligence agencies direct access to various infrastructures so that they can indulge in e-surveillance at will.

The Central Monitoring System (CMS) Project of India and Internet Spy System Network and Traffic Analysis System (NETRA) of India are the Indian versions of this practice. This is possible as we have no dedicated privacy laws in India. There is also no need to get a court order or warrant to tap telephone in India as it is purely an “executive act”. This result in illegal phone tapping and e-surveillance activities at mass scale in India that cannot be reported or ascertained due to limitations placed under various Indian laws.

We need to repeal the laws like Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act 2000), Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, etc and come up with better laws so they remain Constitutional. These laws have become an instrumentality to violate Civil Liberties in Cyberspace of Indian Citizens by both our politicians and intelligence agencies of India. Further, there is an urgent need to maintain a “balance” between law enforcement requirements and civil liberties protection in India.

In United States (U.S.), James Clapper had confirmed that NSA has been targeting foreign citizens for surveillance. Radio waves and Malware have also been used by NSA for world wide e-surveillance. Malware like FinFisher are increasingly being used for global electronic spying, e-surveillance and eavesdropping. Further, GCHQ and NSA have intercepted and stored webcam images of millions of innocent Internet users.

While the White House has limited options in this regard yet courts in different States of U.S. have shown their sensitivity towards e-surveillance and privacy violation issues. In fact, U.S. government has been seeking an order from FISA court for extended storage of telephone metadata and call records.

Although this practice of intelligence agencies of various nations was well known yet no company or individual came forward for long to expose the same. Edward Snowden came forward with the largest disclosures about illegal e-surveillance by intelligence agencies around the world. Now Vodafone has made some disclosures about the dark side of e-surveillance by intelligence agencies.

Vodafone, one of the world’s largest mobile phone groups, has revealed the existence of secret wires that allow government agencies to listen to all conversations on its networks, saying they are widely used in some of the 29 countries in which it operates in Europe and beyond. The company has broken its silence on government surveillance in order to push back against the increasingly widespread use of phone and broadband networks to spy on citizens, and will publish its first Law Enforcement Disclosure Report on Friday. At 40,000 words, it is the most comprehensive survey yet of how governments monitor the conversations and whereabouts of their people. The company said wires had been connected directly to its network and those of other telecoms groups, allowing agencies to listen to or record live conversations and, in certain cases, track the whereabouts of a customer. Privacy campaigners said the revelations were a “nightmare scenario” that confirmed their worst fears on the extent of snooping.

Direct-access systems do not require warrants, and companies have no information about the identity or the number of customers targeted. Mass surveillance can happen on any telecoms network without agencies having to justify their intrusion to the companies involved. Industry sources say that in some cases, the direct-access wire, or pipe, is essentially equipment in a locked room in a network’s central data centre or in one of its local exchanges or “switches”. Government agencies can also intercept traffic on its way into a data centre, combing through conversations before routing them on to the operator.

Vodafone’s group privacy officer, Stephen Deadman, said: “These pipes exist, the direct access model exists. “We are making a call to end direct access as a means of government agencies obtaining people’s communication data. Without an official warrant, there is no external visibility. If we receive a demand we can push back against the agency. The fact that a government has to issue a piece of paper is an important constraint on how powers are used”.