Update 2 | Maltese government filed 3,773 requests for metadata in 2013

Data shows that Malta is one of the most spied on nations in the EU • Government insists 'very few' interceptions were made by the Security Services

Vodafone, a mobile and broadband provider in 29 countries, has admitted to the existence of wires that allow governments to listen in on clients' conversations The Guardian reports.

The company published an extensive, 40,000-word report on government monitoring in an attempt to push back against the use of mobile networks to spy on citizens. In some countries, it is unlawful to publish information about wire tapping, including whether that technology is being used at all.

In 2013, there were 3,773 warrants filed by the Malta government agencies for metadata. Metadata can include client's names and addresses, device locations, and the times of calls and messages. Single warrants can target hundreds of people and several warrants can be for information about a single individual.

The Home Affairs Ministry insisted that, “in the absolute majority of the cases”, the requests were made by the Police while investigating criminal cases. Information was also used by the Police while searching for persons reported missing.

“Very few of the requests were interceptions or information requested by the Security Services,” it said.

Contacted by MaltaToday, a spokesperson for the Home Affairs said she was not in a position to provide a breakdown of the interceptions made by the Malta Security Service "due to security reasons".

On her part, Nationalist MP Kristy Debono said the findings of The Guardian were “alarming” and Maltese clients should be concerned.

“Tapping on such a large amount of calls and texts by one company reflects on the bigger amount of calls and texts carried out in this country. An approximate calculation suggests that over 8,000 calls and texts could be tapped by the government agencies,” she said.

The PN MP added that “by the flick of a switch” the Maltese authorities enjoy access to the citizens’ calls and texts without requiring a warrant.

Debono argued that Malta’s rate of phone tapping was 37% more than the UK: “This casts serious doubts on Malta’s phone tapping trend.”

Alternattiva Demokratika spokesperson for digital society Henrik Piski said governments have once again breached the right for privacy.

“The right of privacy is a fundamental right which cannot be breached,” he said.

AD chairman Arnold Cassola said that while the state was justified in guaranteeing the security of its people, orders for “such eavesdropping” should not be authorised by the minister.

“The government has to explain why thousands of citizens have been eavesdropped through Vodaphone alone.  What about the other operators in Malta?” Cassola said.

AD said only an independent member of the judiciary should be allowed to grant permission for such cases when the request is founded on serious premises.

Vodafone reaction

In a statement, Vodafone Malta said it worked within the Maltese legal system which obliges all mobile operators to provide this information to law enforcement agencies upon receiving a written demand from the law enforcement agencies.

Vodafone said the 3,773 requests shown in the table referred to the formal demands made by law enforcement agencies to Vodafone as part of ongoing police investigations.

“These relate to crimes such as theft of phones which are most, anonymous calls, homicides and other criminal investigations.  In the large majority of cases demands received by law enforcement agencies are in response to reports initiated by the public,” Vodafone Malta said.

The company said that legal interception, which is not done by Vodafone or by any operator, is not factored in the aggregate figure of 3,773, because this only reflects the total amount of requests Vodafone had received from law enforcement agencies throughout the past year.

“Legal interception is separate and carried out in accordance with the law. Vodafone’s ‘Law Enforcement Disclosure Report’ published by Vodafone Group today is an exercise carried out by Vodafone to live up to its privacy commitments which include transparency with its customers and their right to privacy which is a human right enshrined in the International Covenant.  These are the principles by which we run our company and to which all our employees are obliged to comply,” Vodafone said.

Vodafone said the motivation for the publication of this report came in the wake of the revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden last year to the day on US government surveillance and intelligence harvesting by government security agencies such as the NSA. As a result operators such as Vodafone have been questioned as to their role in such activities. This report seeks to inform customers as to what is legally required by Vodafone around the world.  Comparisons of data provided from different Vodafone operators is futile due to the different legal requirements from country to country. 

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