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Tremble, Vodafone! The UN ain't happy about your phone-hacking

You’ve ‘no respect’, says powerless, unknown official

A former Vodafone Australia employee's spying on Fairfax journalist Natalie O'Brien, and the global mobile operator's subsequent conduct, has aroused the interest of the United Nations.

David Kaye, the special rapporteur for freedom of expression, has waded in to the fray, arguing the affair shows a shoddy handling of a serious privacy breach of O'Brien’s phone records, he told the Guardian, adding that the unauthorised access showed “no respect” for source protection.

Kaye told The Guardian’s Australian reporter Paul Farrell: “It’s a fundamental rule in advanced democracies ... that the sources for journalists enjoy confidentiality. Here was a very clear example of a company breaching that confidentiality and circumventing any kind of legal procedure that might be out there."

“It seems pretty egregious, whether we’re talking about just a citizen or a journalist," added Kaye. "It seems to me that as a matter of good corporate practice, particularly if this was a rogue operation, the company should have told her immediately. And they should have told her employer."

The Australian division of Vodafone has admitted (with an accompanying apology [PDF]) that one of its former employees illegally accessed the phone records of the journalist to try to uncover her sources, following publication of a negative story about Vodafone. The mobile operator has also published a robust defence (PDF).

However, the company, which prides itself on how transparent it is, must be a little red-faced – and the UN wading in will only exacerbate that.

Kaye is clinical professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law, and teaches international human rights law and international humanitarian law, and directs a clinic in international justice. His research and writings focus on accountability for serious human rights abuses and the law governing use of force. ®

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