(Justin Tallis, AFP)
London - Vodafone, one of the world's largest cellphone companies, revealed the scope of government snooping into phone networks on Friday, saying authorities in some countries are able to directly access an operator's network without seeking permission.
The company outlined the details in a report that is described as the first of its kind, covering 29 countries - in Europe, Africa and Asia - in which it directly operates. It gives the most comprehensive look to date on how governments monitor the mobile phone communications of their citizens.
The most explosive revelation was that in a small number of countries, authorities require direct access to an operator's network - bypassing legal niceties like warrants. It did not name the countries.
"In those countries, Vodafone will not receive any form of demand for lawful interception access as the relevant agencies and authorities already have permanent access to customer communications via their own direct link," the report said.
The report itself reflects the concern now being raised regarding privacy rights around the world. Though Vodafone is a global company, it consists of separate subsidiaries, all of which are subject to domestic laws of the countries in which it operates.
"The need for governments to balance their duty to protect the state and its citizens against their duty to protect individual privacy is now the focus of a significant global public debate," the company said in the report. "We hope that ... disclosures in this report will help inform that debate."
The findings will alarm civil rights advocates already in arms over the revelations of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency systems administrator whose leaks have exposed some of the agency's most sensitive spying operations.
Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the human rights group Liberty, described the findings as a worst-case scenario infringement into civil rights.
"For governments to access phone calls at the flick of a switch is unprecedented and terrifying," Chakrabarti said in a statement, adding that the Snowden revelations showed the internet was already being treated as "fair game".
"Bluster that all is well is wearing pretty thin - our analogue laws need a digital overhaul," she said.
The company attached a number of caveats to the report, arguing that it is governments, not communications operators, who have the responsibility to offer greater transparency on demands for data.
The company argues that for one thing, no single operator has the whole picture. It also notes that different operators have different ways of reporting statistical data - or may choose not to publish it at all.
"After months of detailed analysis, it has become clear that there is, in fact, very little coherence and consistency in law and agency and authority practice, even between neighbouring EU Member States," the report said. There is also a big difference between governments on the best way to improve transparency.
Though the United States is not one of the countries assessed in the report, the study comes at a time when other businesses are expressing concern about the use of communications data.
Executives in Silicon Valley, for example, have stepped up pressure on US President Barack Obama to curb the US government surveillance programs which collect information off the internet.
Twitter, LinkedIn, AOL, Google, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft are pushing for tighter controls over electronic espionage - fearing that eavesdropping threatens the technology industry's financial livelihood.