Vodafone refused for legal reasons to name the six countries that tapped directly into its customers' communications. Photo: Bloomberg

Kate Holton and Sarah Young London

Government agencies in six unidentified countries used Vodafone’s network to listen to and record customers’ calls, the second-biggest cellular operator has revealed, showing the scale of telecoms eavesdropping around the world.

The US and Britain both came in for global scrutiny and criticism after Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the US National Security Agency, disclosed their vast phone, e-mail and internet surveillance operations.

But Vodafone, with 400 million customers across Europe, Africa and Asia, said in its disclosure report on Friday that countries in its reach were using similar practices.

While most governments needed legal notices to tap into customers’ communications, there were six countries where that was not the case, it said. “In a few countries the law dictates that specific agencies and authorities must have direct access to an operator’s network, bypassing any form of operational control over lawful interception on the part of the operator.”

Vodafone did not name the six for legal reasons.

It added that in Albania, Egypt, Hungary, India, Malta, Qatar, Romania, South Africa and Turkey it could not disclose any information on wiretapping or interception.

The report, which was incomplete because many governments would not allow it to disclose requests, also linked to already-published national data which showed Britain and Australia making hundreds of thousands of requests.

Of the countries in which Vodafone operates, EU member Italy made the most requests for communication data.

Germany, which expressed outrage when it was revealed last year that US intelligence services had listened in to the calls of Chancellor Angela Merkel, also asked to listen in to conversations and collect data such as where the calls were made and how long they lasted.

Vodafone received no requests from the government of the US because it did not have an operating licence there. It exited a joint mobile venture with Verizon last year.

The extent of US and UK surveillance was laid bare when Snowden passed stolen secret documents to newspapers, triggering a spy scandal and a stand-off between US President Barack Obama and the Kremlin and led to calls for greater scrutiny of Western agents.

In the cases of the six countries, the company said government agencies had inserted their own equipment into the Vodafone network, or diverted Vodafone’s data traffic through government systems, to enable them to listen into calls, and determine where they were made.

“For governments to access phone calls at the flick of a switch is unprecedented and terrifying,” Shami Chakrabarti, the director of human rights group Liberty, said. “Snowden revealed the internet was already treated as fair game. Bluster that all is well is wearing thin – our analogue laws need a digital overhaul.”

Western security services said they were fighting a silent war with extremists trying to kill their citizens. The head of the UK’s MI5 service said Snowden’s revelations were a gift to terrorists. – Reuters