The world's second-biggest mobile phone company Vodafone revealed government agencies in six unidentified countries use its network to listen to and record customers' calls, showing the scale of telecom eavesdropping around the world.
The United States and Britain both came in for global scrutiny and criticism after Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), disclosed their vast phone, email and internet surveillance operations.
But Vodafone (VOD.L), which has 400 million customers in countries across Europe, Africa and Asia, said in its "Disclosure Report" on Friday that countries in its reach are using similar practices.
The company revealed that while it received thousands of requests from 29 governments to tap into its networks in the past year, six countries had direct access to its network without need for a legal warrant.
"In a small number of 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 said.
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 related to wiretapping or interception.
The Vodafone report, which is incomplete because many governments will not allow it to disclose requests, also linked to already-published national data which showed Britain and Australia making hundreds of thousands of requests.
It showed that of the countries in which it operates, EU member Italy made the most requests for communication data.
Germany, which expressed outrage when it was revealed last year that U.S. intelligence services had listened into the calls of Angela Merkel, also made requests to listen in to conversations and collect the data around them, such as where the calls were made and how long they lasted.
Vodafone received no requests from the government of the United States because it does not have an operating license there. It exited a joint mobile venture with Verizon last year.
The extent of U.S. and British surveillance was laid bare when the NSA's Snowden passed stolen secret documents to newspapers, triggering a spy scandal that caused a standoff between U.S. President Barack Obama and the Kremlin and led to calls for greater scrutiny of Western agents.
Access at the flick of a switch
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," said Shami Chakrabarti, Director of human rights group Liberty.
"Snowden revealed the internet was already treated as fair game. Bluster that all is well is wearing pretty thin – our analogue laws need a digital overhaul."
Western security services say they are fighting a silent war with extremists who are trying to kill their citizens and the head of Britain's MI5 Security Service has said Snowden's revelations were a gift to terrorists.
Vodafone runs mobile and some broadband operations in 27 countries and works with partners in 49 more. It also has a small number of local operator businesses in other countries through its acquisition of the Cable & Wireless worldwide business.
It said it had received requests in 29 countries.
Vodafone linked to data released by national governments, covering either 2013 or the most recent year available. It noted that each country, agency and operator counts requests in different ways and therefore it was difficult to compare them.
According to the most recent national reports, which were collated by the Guardian newspaper, Australia made 685,757 requests for details about calls, such as where they were made and to whom. It intercepted 3,389 calls.
Britain had similar statistics, with 514,608 requests for details and 2,760 interceptions. Germany made 18,026 requests, with 23,687 interceptions in 2012, the last time data was given.
Vodafone is the world's second largest mobile operator in terms of customer numbers, behind China Mobile.