Where do we draw the line on telco surveillance? - UK

After all we have read in the media over the past couple of years from Julian Assange and Wikileaks to the NSA activities revealed by Edward Snowden, most people would now assume that phone network operators can listen in to calls or texts that originate from their phone. In fact, after all that has been made public, it seems naïve to believe that any phone calls or data use is private unless you go to some lengths to cover your tracks.

This potential for surveillance by any of the phone companies can – of course – help to support national security. The governing authorities having access to information on any network can help to protect innocent civilians if criminals or terrorists are using these networks to communicate with each other.

But even with this knowledge that their phone can be under surveillance, most people still have an expectation of privacy. Any innocent person just going about his or her regular business doesn’t want to feel that every call or text they make is being scanned and checked.

Vodafone has recently revealed that in some markets where they operate, the state government regulations allow officials direct access to the phone network. This is a condition of operating in those markets so in some states there is not even a system of government agencies making a request because of some suspicion – they can just listen in to anything.

Vodafone has not disclosed exactly which of the 29 markets they operate in functions like this, but Total Telecom magazine suggests that it is likely to be in 6 of those 29 locations.

Vodafone is to be applauded for their openness in disclosing how their network can be subjected to state surveillance, but it raises the question once more of where to draw the line between security requirements and a desire for individual privacy.

If more operators could be open about how surveillance works then it would be a good start, but any substantial redefinition of what is acceptable will be a parliamentary decision – so this is going to need more people to ask more questions of their elected leaders if we want to ensure there are safeguards and fair procedures.


Photo by Jonathan McIntosh licensed under Creative Commons

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