Vodacom plays down mass spying fears

Vodacom says it is strictly bound by various regulations when it comes to government surveillance orders. This follows startling revelations that government agencies have direct wiretaps into many of parent Vodafone’s operating networks around the world. By Regardt van der Berg.


Vodacom in South Africa has sought to play down startling revelations on Friday that its parent, Vodafone, has secret wiretaps that allow government agencies to listen into and record live telephone conversations, a practice that is reportedly commonplace in many of the 29 countries in which the group operates.

According to a report in the Guardian, Vodafone, which is the world’s second largest mobile operator by subscribers, has “broken its silence” on the surveillance programme “in order to push back against the increasingly widespread use of phone and broadband networks to spy on citizens”. Later on Friday, the operator, which has more than 420m subscribers, intends publishing its first Law Enforcement Disclosure Report, which the Guardian says is the “most comprehensive survey yet of how governments monitor the conversations and whereabouts of their people”.

It is unlawful in South Africa and several other countries in which Vodafone operates to disclose information related to wiretapping and the interception of phone calls, including even whether such capabilities exist, according to the Guardian.

“We’re strictly bound by various regulations with respect to surveillance orders — for example, the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (Rica) and the Criminal Procedure Act — and the monitoring of communications can only take place within the framework provided by these regulations,” says Vodacom spokesman Richard Boorman.

“More specifically,” Boorman says, “Vodacom would have to be served with a valid subpoena from a designated judge for any form of surveillance to take place.”

Vodafone said on Friday that wires had been connected directly to its network and those of other telecoms groups, allowing government agencies to listen into and record live conversations. In some cases, phone users’ whereabouts were also tracked.

On whether there are any — or have been any — wiretaps directly into Vodacom’s network allowing government agencies to listen into its customers’ conversations or track their whereabouts, Boorman says: “The law enforcement authorities are better placed to comment on the type of surveillance undertaken in South Africa. I can only reiterate that any surveillance requests to Vodacom are carried out in accordance with the law, and only if Vodacom is served with a court order from a designated judge.”

Privacy advocates have met news of the government wiretaps with outrage, with Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil liberties group Liberty, telling the Guardian that “for governments to access phone calls at the flick of a switch is unprecedented and terrifying”.

Vodafone’s revelations come a year after whistleblower Edward Snowden, revealed the extent of US and UK government surveillance using electronic networks. Documents Snowden leaked to the media showed how the US government was collecting the records of millions of people, including American citizens, regardless of whether they were suspected of any wrongdoing.

The Guardian quotes Vodafone group privacy officer Stephen Deadman calling for an end to direct wiretapping into Vodafone’s networks.

“We are making a call to end direct access as a means of government agencies obtaining people’s communications 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.”  — © 2014 NewsCentral Media

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  • Nick Edwards

    Unfortunatly, with the scale of terrorist activity and organized crime, i feel it has become necessary for Governments to take action.
    If you have nothing to hide, it should’t be a problem.

  • http://wogan.me Wogan

    You’ve got plenty to hide. Your bank statements. Your personal email. Your business dealings, contractual disputes, intellectual property, confidential corporate data, legal counsel, the list goes on. Plenty, plenty of information out there should be private by default.

  • http://www.InTheCube.co.za/ InTheCube.co.za

    One day you will regret these comments, and all the info from your personal life that you’ve allowed to get into the hands of governments, corporates and others who take interest in your personal life. Remember, once you info is out there, there is absolutely no way to get it back, and you will have no clue how far it has been spread, and who is currently sitting with it.

  • Nick Edwards

    The Receiver of Revenue already has access to all your banking details
    and by means of a court order the government agencies can access all the
    other details without your knowledge. So the lesson to learn is dont do
    anything you shouldn’t and then you dont have to worry about the
    Government “spying” on you.
    My comment was also linited ONLY to the Government (not corpotates and others)
    Its impossible to live off the grid. They already have all your details.
    too late to panic now.

  • Nick Edwards

    Bank Statements – Open to Receiver of Revenue
    Your personal email. Your business dealings, contractual disputes,
    intellectual property, confidential corporate data, legal counsel are available to numerous government agencies with a court order.
    No information is private to the government.

  • http://wogan.me Wogan

    Yes, except that the government has to follow legal process, and can’t just arbitrarily pull up records for no good reason. They need to prove to a judge that the information they’re after can be used as evidence. There are paper trails, signoffs, and an appeals process.

    Private enterprises are not bound by those same rules. So long as nobody finds out what they’re doing (much easier since they can set any disclosure and secrecy rules they like), then they can do whatever they want. And when they inevitably screw up in protecting that data, millions of people’s lives are affected.

  • Nick Edwards

    The biggest problem is not with the average consumer not protecting his information correctly or safely but with the loopholes and backdoors that are found in our “secure” software that is exploited by those seeking to use that info for their own gain.
    As long as personal info is stored as electronic data, nothing will be private to those who are determined to obtain it.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    As you allude to, it’s not really about you and me as citizens – the most that will happen in most cases to normal law abiding citizens in a normal life is we get more ads. We all need to get behind personal privacy because of that minority like whistle-blowers and unfairly targeted people who really do need that shield. Like free speech, citizens have to keep standing up for it, to keep it intact for those who really need it when it becomes a matter of life and death.

    I don’t have anything to hide, but will aggressively protect my right to privacy, and I don’t feel I need to justify wanting to keep my private things private.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    The only silver lining is that everyone’s sooooo bad at big data processing… Google’s supposed to be the best at it, but their ad systems (humanity’s crown jewel of predictive engines) are utterly pathetic. Governments have to be 10+ years behind them, so we’re looking at decades until it becomes a real threat. Your point does stand, that the information can be archived for later processing, I’m banking that by that time the laws have been made and are in favour of the originator of the data. Something has to be done. I generally assume that everyone’s stealing everything I make public, and act accordingly – erring on the side of paranoia.

  • http://wogan.me Wogan

    That’s absolutely true – the more people there are in favour of privacy, the better off we’ll all be. But there should be a line drawn between public data and private data.

    Marketing companies (like the sort I deal with) only ever gather the information that consumers willingly offer up. The problem is that nobody’s yet cracked the formula for getting the best returns from that data – so it keeps piling up while everyone tries figuring out what to do with it, which increases the theoretical damages in the event of a breach. That’s something that they’re starting to address, by putting expiration dates on everything, but there’s still a long way to go, and this is far removed from private data: The stuff that you, as a person, reasonably expect to remain private while you transact over the internet.

    It’s the warrantless wiretapping, physical intercepts, firewall backdoors, state-sponsored malware, and so on, that should be really troubling for everyone. At the end of the day, there are other human beings on the other end of this surveillance machine, and they’re subject to all the same prejudices, mistakes, and misinformation we are. Nobody gave them the right to accumulate that much power over us, and that’s what should be keeping all of us up at night.

  • http://wogan.me Wogan

    I actually work in the industry that’s trying to get solutions from these big data sets, and you’d be amazed at how difficult it actually is. At some point the industry may well just give up with big data entirely, in favour of asking consumers for their preferences directly.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    I wouldn’t be amazed at all, I work with a different kind of giant data set – world map sets – and although it’s great to analyse and find trends, it’s utterly useless to run the averages and use them to infer something about a particular item.

    In big data, to be accurate, you have to process in the opposite direction – treat each individual record (or person) as a target, then work backwards to fill in the blanks you don’t know – pretty much like Sudoku. This takes orders of magnitude more processing power, which is possible to overcome, but I don’t think even Google or Facebook are ready to infringe on privacy in this way. Google Now is the beginnings of this kind of data processing, and that has to have individual opt-in from the users.

    But then, at that point, as you say, you’re better just asking the consumer. Because if they’re happy to opt in to you carefully analysing everything they do, they’ll probably be happy to answer a few questions about themselves. Microsoft does this on their WP8.1 Coratana personal assistant – as it’s learning and needs information, instead of trying to guess it, it’ll pop up a few questions about your habits and interests.

    Very interesting to see all this unroll.

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