7 Jun 2014

Wire-tapping report 'should reassure'

10:08 pm on 7 June 2014

Vodafone has released a report detailing the scope of wire-tapping by state agencies in 29 countries, including New Zealand.

The global telecommunications company said its inaugural Law Enforcement Disclosure report was a call for governments around the world to be more transparent about such activities.

The report points to the tension between "the protection of the citizen's right to privacy and the duty of the state to ensure public safety and security".

Those tensions have been brought into sharp focus by the allegations made by the former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

It also said "media reports of widespread government surveillance and data 'harvesting' by intelligence agencies have triggered a significant public debate about the transparency, proportionality and legitimacy - even lawfulness - of the alleged activities of a number of high-profile agencies.

"Questions have also been asked about the role of communications operators such as Vodafone in support of those activities."

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Photo: AFP

Vodafone said it believed it was governments, not communications operators, that should be providing greater transparency.

But Auckland University business school associate professor Gehan Gunasekara said more telecommunications companies should release transparency reports.

He said there was nothing wrong with collecting metadata as long as it was used properly.

Legal access

Under the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act 2013, government agencies in New Zealand can access telecom operators data directly.

New Zealand is one of six countries with such legislation.

The Vodafone report said governments, not communications operators, should be responsible for greater transparency.

The Telecommuncations Users Association, TUANZ, said it appears Vodafone is responding to its customers' anxiety about state surveillance. Spokesperson Chris O'Connell said many telecom operators were feeling a backlash from customers.

"Mechanisms that were set up for one purpose could be used far more widely against dissent and I think that's something we have to be vigilant against," he said.

However Privacy Commissioner John Edwards said New Zealand agencies are already very open about their activities, as the Vodafone report shows. The report includes links to reports by police, the Security Intelligence Service, Customs and the Serious Fraud Office, which detail statistics on warrants. Mr Edwards said the level of anxiety among the public about state spying is disproportionate to the reality and as far as his office knows, there is no mass surveillance in this country.

"Having more information about these activities by releasing a report such as Vodafone has actually done, I think is a very positive thing."

Mr Edwards said carriers were concerned at the regulatory cost of the law and potential for intrusion on their customers.

For the year ending 30 June 2013, the SIS had 34 such warrants in force, while police granted 84 warrants for interception devices.

Government Communication Security Bureau figures show 11 interception warrants and 26 access authorisations in force.

Following the report, Telecom released a short statement saying it complies with the law and confirming it has received 40 requests from government agencies in the last year.