Vodafone says governments have direct listening option

A chimpanzee uses the telephone, in one of many fun images you can purchase from Masterfile.

An orangutan uses the telephone, in one of many fun images you can purchase from Masterfile.

Why is this orangutan wearing a knit sweater when he is already covered in orange utan hair? His mom made it, you dick. You’re at the mercy of what your parents consider important, because there are twice as many of them as you. Case in point: Vodafone announced Friday that several governments have direct access to its customers’ data, including the ability to listen to phone calls in progress. Originally, that was supposed to be something they could do only with judicial oversight, but if one of those secret rulings doesn’t work out, the government of, say, Ireland can just use its technical backdoor. I’m sure none of those foreign governments—which may include our own—would abuse their direct lines, though. In unrelated news, the government of Britain made over 500,000 requests for communications data in 2013 alone.

Before we go any further, I would like to take a second to lament the utter collapse of explanatory journalism evident in the technical descriptions of how governments listen to our phone calls. The Guardian, for example, reports that the process works via “secret wires.” An earlier version of the Times story contained a paragraph that included taps, lines, wires and freeway lines, but it seems to have been cut for dignity. The point is that several governments have technical solutions that allow them to listen to calls whether they get permission or not, and you are too dumb to understand it.

In a larger sense, that is the underlying theme of this whole story. Yes, the government can intercept your phone calls, emails and text messages, but no, you cannot know exactly what or how often, because you wouldn’t appreciate it properly. Very powerful rich people have determined that most non-rich, non-powerful citizens need to be protected from certain other NRNP’s, but pretty much all the strategy and even the decision itself are, frankly, a little more than you could understand.

I’ve dissolved into rhetoric. The issue is not as simple as that, but the phrase “secret surveillance for your own good” keeps coalescing and making me nervous. One interesting aspect of the Guardian story is how many countries have made it illegal to publish information about their own surveillance programs: Albania, Egypt, Qatar, Turkey—all the good ones, really. We should probably add the United States to that list, given that it is still our stated policy to try for treason the man who told us this was even happening.

So all that is messed up. What bothers me most, though, is that telecommunications companies have built this direct access into their systems even as they disclaim responsibility for it:

“It is governments—not communications operators—who hold the primary duty to provide greater transparency on the number of agency and authority demands issued to operators,” Vodafone’s report said. “We believe that regulators, parliaments or governments will always have a far more accurate view of the activities of agencies and authorities than any one operator.”

You can read this quote as Vodafone chastising governments for not releasing their own wiretapping statistics, but you can also read it as passing the buck. There are two stories here: several governments are ignoring legal oversight of their own surveillance operations, and the world’s largest telecom companies are enabling them.

I may not understand the relationship between Vodafone and foreign governments, but would the feds have shut down Verizon if it refused to provide them with surveillance data? If nothing else, the ensuing legal fight would have made the program public. Telecommunications companies act as if they are powerless in this sequence of events, but they are the mechanism that makes mass surveillance possible, and they could say no.

That’s not profitable, of course. But telecom is the second-largest lobby in the United States, and it is not so powerless against the NSA as it might pretend. Certainly, the industry has flexed its muscles with the federal government before. It is grimly unsurprising that Verizon et al would fight the power when it comes to antitrust laws and roll over when it comes to infringement on its customers’ rights, but it is also worrying. If the government has a plan for us and multinational corporations won’t stop it, who could?

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