nsa-transparency

Vodafone revealed today in its first transparency report that a number of European countries have direct access to its telecommunications network, allowing them to record every phone call made passing through without ever having to obtain a warrant or even inform Vodafone itself.

That disclosure is the most striking example of the access some countries have to information or communication networks, and the extent to which they are willing to compromise their citizens’ privacy while preventing them from ever knowing if they have been targeted by these tools.

Vodafone says in its report that it is extremely limited in its ability to reveal information. The company doesn’t even name the countries with direct access to its network for fear of having its employees within those countries investigated or imprisoned after making the disclosures.

The company is asking that its partner governments release their own transparency reports, noting thatits networks aren’t the only ones affected by these laws. A piecemeal approach to disclosing these programs and requests, it says, simply isn’t enough:

In our view, inconsistent publication of statistical information by individual operators amounts to an inadequate and unsustainable foundation for true transparency and public insight. There is a substantial risk that the combination of widely varying methodologies between operators (leading to effectively irreconcilable raw numbers) and the potential for selective withholding of certain categories of agency and authority demand (for reasons which may not themselves be fully transparent) would act as a significant barrier to the kind of meaningful disclosure sought by the public in an increasing number of countries.

Companies around the world have been making that argument since last June, when Edward Snowden revealed efforts by the National Security Agency and Government Communications Headquarters to use their resources to spy on anyone with a telephone or Internet connection.

This problem was highlighted by a transparency report by Google that “blacked out” a section to show the company’s unhappiness with being unable to share certain requests. Yet disclosure restrictions aren’t the only thing preventing the propagation of true transparency — there is also the problem of some companies not knowing that some government programs even exist:

How could these companies disclose such programs in their transparency reports — even if the current restrictions are lifted — if they are unaware of them in the first place?

They couldn’t. As well-intentioned (and self-serving) as these opaque reports are, these private companies don’t have the ability to describe all the ways in which governments in general and the NSA in particular are monitoringcompromising, and weaponizing the Internet. That’s up to the independent press and, perhaps some time in the future, the government itself.

Vodafone’s proposes that governments to tell their citizens about their surveillance efforts. While that would be preferable to relying on incomplete reports from companies it may also erode the safety of their employees, a fact that must be weighed when making such these disclosures. It’s unlikely that most governments will ever allow their citizens to know the true scope and nature of their surveillance systems.

Just look at the United States; even as our government says that transparency about the NSA’s programs will be required moving forward, the Obama administration has condemned more whistleblowers and classified more documents than any of its predecessors. Transparency might be the buzzword of the year, but the truth is that there are only shades of opacity.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]