Operators in "a handful" of European-member states must give governments direct, permanent access to their networks, a report by UK-based Vodafone has revealed.
It is understood these unnamed countries number six in total, and are able to bypass any control operators have over lawful interception, according to Vodafone’s first ever Law Enforcement Disclosure report.
The news comes amid increasing public discussion about the access governments have to their communications data, particularly following the disclosures of state surveillance by former CIA operative Edward Snowden last year.
Telecoms operators are increasingly concerned about how the public views their role in such matters.
As such, Vodafone said it is governments – not operators – who hold the primary duty to provide greater transparency on the number of agency and authority demands issued to companies such as theirs.
The operator said dealings with state agencies and authorities fall into one of the three categories: mandatory compliance with lawful demands; emergency and non-routine assistance; and protecting Vodafone customers and networks from attack.
It added: “If we receive a demand for assistance which falls outside these three categories, we will challenge it and refuse to comply.”
The report, which Vodafone said had been “very complex and challenging” to compile, encompasses instances where the operator received a lawful demand for assistance in 29 countries between 1 April 2013 and 31 March 2014.
Specifically, it looked at two categories of law enforcement demands that account for the “overwhelming majority” of all such activity: lawful interception and access to communications data.
According to the operator, there is “very little coherence and consistency” in law and agency and authority practice, even between neighbouring EU Member States.
The report stated: “In practice, laws governing agencies’ and authorities’ access to customer data are often both broad and opaque… and frequently lag the development and use of communications technology.”
Adding to the complexity, Vodafone said, is that no individual operator can provide a full picture of the extent of agency and authority demands across a country as a whole.
“Different operators are likely to have widely differing approaches to recording and reporting the same statistical information… the scope for miscounting is immense,” it commented.
In the UK, for example, Section 19 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 prohibits operators from disclosing the existence of any lawful interception warrant and the existence of any requirement to provide assistance in relation to a warrant.
However, in Spain Vodafone revealed it had received 24,212 demands for lawful interception and 48,679 requests for communications data.
In some countries, such as Germany and Italy, it is government agencies themselves that publish the information regarding lawful interception.
But Vodafone was able to reveal that Italian authorities made 605,601 requests for communications data.
In Ireland, there were 4,124 requests for communications data, but Vodafone was prohibited from revealing the number of lawful interception requests.
Vodafone said: “Inconsistent publication of statistical information by individual operators amounts to an inadequate and unsustainable foundation for true transparency and public insight.”
A full country-by-country breakdown can be found here.
Vodafone admitted that it is possible “to learn a great deal about an individual’s movements, interests and relationships from an analysis of metadata and other data associated with their use of a communications network”.
In response, it said it has developed “strict rules” governing the use of communications data for marketing purposes, for example.
In each of Vodafone’s operating companies around the world, a “small number” of employees are tasked with liaising with agencies and authorities in order to process demands received.
Overall, it said it has to balance its responsibility to respect its customers’ right to privacy against a legal obligation to respond to the authorities’ lawful demands.