Vodafone is revealing the existence of secret wires that allow government agencies to directly access conversations on its networks. The surprise revelations are contained within a 40,000 word document published today, designed to shed light on surveillance in the 29 countries that Vodafone operates in worldwide. Countries like Albania, Egypt, Hungary, India, Malta, Qatar, Romania, South Africa, and Turkey all prohibit carriers to disclose any details of wiretapping, so Vodafone isn’t revealing the exact details of the governments involved in monitoring communications in such a direct way.

Direct-access systems do not require a warrant

The snooping confirms fears that telecommunications companies have been forced to implement secret wires to provide direct access to government agencies. "These are the nightmare scenarios that we were imagining," said Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International, in a statement to The Guardian. The direct-access systems do not require a warrant, allowing government agencies to snoop at any time without justification. Vodafone is now calling on governments to axe the direct-access pipes, and to "amend legislation which enables agencies and authorities to access an operator’s communications infrastructure without the knowledge and direct control of the operator."

The timing of Vodafone’s report comes almost exactly a year after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden started releasing documents showing the extent of US and foreign government surveillance. Some of Snowden’s leaked documents revealed that Vodafone and other telecommunications companies had secretly granted Britain's spy agency, GCHQ, access to a network of undersea cables. Vodafone admits that government requests are often processed "blind" without information on their context due to the secrecy involved, making it difficult to challenge government demands. "We are making a call to end direct access as a means of government agencies obtaining people's communication data," says Vodafone's group privacy officer, Stephen Deadman, in a statement to The Guardian. "Without an official warrant, there is no external visibility. If we receive a demand we can push back against the agency. The fact that a government has to issue a piece of paper is an important constraint on how powers are used."