Vodafone, one of the world's largest telecommunications companies, has revealed the scope of government snooping into phone networks, saying authorities in some countries are able to directly access an operator's network without seeking permission.
The company outlined the details in a report on Friday covering 29 countries in Europe, Africa and Asia in which it directly operates, and providing the most comprehensive look to date on how governments monitor mobile phone communications of their citizens.
Amongst other revelations, the report said that authorities require direct access to an operator's network in a small number of countries, bypassing legal procedures like acquiring warrants. It did not name the countries.
"In those countries, Vodafone will not receive any form of demand for lawful interception access as the relevant agencies and authorities already have permanent access to customer communications via their own direct link," the report said.
For governments to access phone calls at the flick of a switch is unprecedented and terrifying
"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," the company said in the report. "We hope that... disclosures in this report will help inform that debate."
Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the human rights group Liberty, described the findings as a worst-case scenario infringement into civil rights.
"For governments to access phone calls at the flick of a switch is unprecedented and terrifying," Chakrabarti said in a statement.
Though Vodafone is a global company, it consists of separate subsidiaries, all of which are subject to domestic laws of the countries in which it operates.
The company attached a number of caveats to the report, arguing that it is governments, not communications operators, who have the responsibility to offer greater transparency on demands for data.
The company noted that different operators have different ways of reporting statistical data - or may choose not to publish it at all.
"After months of detailed analysis, it has become clear that there is, in fact, very little coherence and consistency in law and agency and authority practice, even between neighbouring EU Member States," the report said.
Last year, former US National Security Agency systems administrator Edward Snowden exposed some of the agency's most sensitive spying operations. However, the United States is not one of the countries assessed in the Vodafone report.