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Vodafone surveillance report calls for transparency

Telecommunications company Vodafone's report on government surveillance of its customers is raising questions from Dublin to Delhi about how much spying on email and telephone chats happens in secret.

In the report, Vodafone said most of the 29 countries surveyed required the company's knowledge and cooperation to hear phone calls or see emails in 2013.

Vodafone published its transparency report on Friday evening (Australian time).
Vodafone published its transparency report on Friday evening (Australian time). Photo: Ina Fassbender

But at least six governments had given their security agencies the power of direct access.

Vodafone didn't name the countries that have tapped into its network, but the report provided some clues.

An 88-page appendix reveals five countries - Albania, Egypt, Hungary, Ireland and Qatar - have provisions allowing authorities to demand unfettered access.

In vague language, the report also indicated similar powers could exist in India and the United Kingdom.

The report details the number of times government authorities asked the company, via warrants, to divulge customer metadata and the content of communications. It also lists the the aggregated number of requests made by each country's governments where revealed by the government themselves.

In Australia, for example, Vodafone appeared to have received no warrants for information on its customers, while the government reported having requested information 3389 times for content and 685,757 times for metadata nationally from various providers, according to The Guardian report. Some numbers had been disclosed previously, but they differ from those in the Vodafone report. 

In May, Google revealed Australian government requests for data from the company were the eigth highest in the world.

In Fiji, Vodafone received 760 warrants for metadata in 2013 but no official government disclosure took place in the same period. While in Hungary, there were 75,938 warrants for metadata with any other disclosure being unlawful.

In too many cases, Vodafone said, governments kept both the company and wider society in the dark, with laws explicitly forbidding government disclosure of any details of its electronic eavesdropping.

The report is also seen as a response to the company's embarrassing role in the Egyptian protests that ousted Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011.

As those 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 criticised for its actions.

AP/APP with Fairfax Media

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