In Brief

Vodafone: 'governments use us to spy on citizens'

'Direct access pipes' let spooks listen in on Vodafone customers' conversations

Vodafone has confirmed the existence of secret "wires" which allow governments around the world to listen directly to conversations on its network, The Guardian reports in its ongoing series of stories on privacy and the security services.

Previous claims have suggested that some governments forced mobile phone providers to let them listen in at will, but Vodafone is the first phone company to break ranks and acknowledge that it accommodates security agencies in this way.

Confirming that "these pipes exist, the direct access model exists", Vodafone's group privacy officer Stephen Deadman said the company was making "a call to end direct access as a means of government agencies obtaining people's communication data".

Asked if the UK used direct access wires, Deadman said such a system would be illegal here because British security agencies were required to obtain a warrant each time they wanted to access communications data.

The Guardian quotes industry sources as saying the direct access "wire" or "pipe" is in some cases actually a locked room in a data centre with staff who, though employed by the telecoms firm, have state security clearance and are not allowed to discuss their operations with the rest of the company.

These wires allow security agencies to listen in on calls before or after they pass through the phone operator's data centre. Warrants are not required and the phone company has no knowledge of which calls are listened to. They can also collect data about calls, known as metadata – for example who called whom and when.

Gus Hosein, director of Privacy International, told The Guardian it was a "brave step" for Vodafone to reveal the truth, which he described as a "nightmare scenario". Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti called it "unprecedented and terrifying".

Vodafone is the first company to provide global data on government requests. In America, Verizon and AT&T have published domestic data, as have Deutsche Telekom in Germany and Telstra in Australia.

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