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June 07, 2014 | Jim Killock

No transparency for the UK in Vodafone's transparency report

Yesterday’s transparency report from Vodafone raised a very intriguing question: why did Vodafone feel obliged to redact aggregate surveillance statistics from their UK report?

vodafone reportVodafone’s argument for publishing these statistics where they can is that “The need for governments to balance their duty to protect the state and its citizens against their duty to protect individual privacy is now the focus of a significant global public debate.We hope that – despite the shortcomings … – the country-by-country disclosures in this report will help inform that debate.”

They note however that it is not legal to disclose aggregate statistics or other information in many of the 29 countries in which they operate. Although Google, Twitter, Yahoo and others do publish aggregate information about the UK, Vodafone report states that the law in many states is not clear:

In many countries, there is a lack of legal clarity regarding disclosure of the aggregate number of law enforcement demands. We have therefore contacted governments to ask for guidance. Some have responded, and their views are summarised in this report.

But more importantly, Vodafone have chosen not to publish statistics about the volume of their own communications data requests, as the UK government does this already:

We believe governments should be encouraged and supported in seeking to adopt this approach [publishing aggregate statistics] consistently across our countries of operation. We have therefore provided links to all aggregate statistics currently published by governments in place of our own locally held information (where disclosure is legally permissible at all) and are already engaged in discussions with the authorities in a number of countries to enhance the level of transparency through government disclosure in future.

Separately, where the authorities currently do not publish aggregate statistical information but where we believe we can lawfully publish in our own right, we have disclosed the information we hold for our own local operations.

In other words, as the UK publishes a single aggregagate Comms Data statistic, Vodafone believe they should not duplicate and confuse the picture.

For the UK, Vodafone state:

[Note 1] Section 19 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 prohibits disclosing the existence of any lawful interception warrant and the existence of any requirement to provide assistance in relation to a warrant. This duty of secrecy extends to all matters relating to warranted lawful interception. Data relating to lawful interception warrants cannot be published. Accordingly, to publish aggregate statistics would be to disclose the existence of one or more lawful interception warrants.

{Note 2] The Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office publishes statistical information related to lawful interception and communications data demands issued by agencies and authorities.

It is not clear whether it is Vodafone’s interpretation of RIPA, or the government’s that it is really true that “to publish aggregate statistics would be to disclose the existence of one or more lawful interception warrants” and violate Section 19 of RIPA. 

We do not agree with Vodafone that it could be confusing to publish their own figures for requests. It is, we believe, important for everyone to be clear about the volumes and kind of requests they are getting, including the errors and rejections of requests that that are made. Showing that both companies and governments are roughly in agreement about what is happening helps us understand the bigger picture of law enforcement activity. The UK government has been notoriously resistant to the idea of improving transparency and will probably remain so. It is inadequate to expect them to improve without outside pressure, which means comapnies must publish what they can.

Transparency of course is not a solution to mass surveillance. It is just a precondition for a sensible debate, and re-establishing trust. At this point, it seems that the UK government is still trying to perpetuate a culture of secrecy.

UPDATE: This article has been edited to reflect Vodafone's explanation of their choice not to publish UK and other aggregate statistics set out in the report.

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