Vodafone’s hacking of a reporter’s phone — and subsequent cover-up — has been attacked as “egregious” by the United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of expression.
David Kaye, whose duties involve monitoring freedom of speech issues across the globe, told The Guardian the case was a “very clear example” of a corporation breaching “the fundamental rule in advanced democracies” that the identity of journalists’ sources are protected.
“It’s a fundamental rule in advanced democracies for sure that the sources for journalists enjoy confidentiality,” Mr Kaye told the publication.
“Here was a very clear example of a company breaching that confidentiality and circumventing any kind of legal procedure that might be out there.”
On Saturday The Australian revealed Vodafone Hutchison Australia in January 2011 hacked the telephone of Fairfax Media investigative reporter Natalie O’Brien, the day after she had published an article highly critical of the company’s privacy and security systems.
Ms O’Brien was at the time a customer of Vodafone.
Vodafone has since admitted the hacking and on Monday — four and a half years after the hack and at least three years since it became aware of it — reported it to the Australian Federal Police.
The hacking raises very serious questions for the chief executive of the multi-billion dollar National Broadband Network, Bill Morrow, who was chief executive of Vodafone Hutchison Australia when the hack was covered-up.
Mr Morrow became chief executive of Vodafone Hutchison Australia in March 2012 — with Vodafone knowing of the hack as least as early as June 2012 — and remained in that role in 2014.
Despite the seriousness of the hack, and an acknowledgment by Vodafone Hutchison Australia that it was aware of the hack at least as early as June 2012 and that KPMG conducted an “investigation” into the hack and reported it to Vodafone Hutchison Australia management, Mr Morrow this week told a senate committee he was “not aware” of the hack while at Vodafone.
The hacking also raises serious questions for Malcolm Turnbull in his first week as Prime Minister, given he appointed Mr Morrow as chief executive of the NBN in his role as communications minister, which he held until Monday this week.
Mr Turnbull’s office has been approached for comment regarding whether Mr Turnbull was made aware of the hacking when he appointed Mr Morrow and whether Mr Morrow retains his support as NBN chief executive.
Despite Vodafone being aware the hack of Ms O’Brien’s phone, Vodafone did not tell her that her phone had been hacked.
Mr Kaye condemned Vodafone’s actions.
“It seems pretty egregious, whether we’re talking about just a citizen or a journalist. 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,” he said.
Mr Kaye said that “no respect” had been shown for the protection of a journalist’s sources.
“This was a breach that wasn’t just personal, but it was really a breach that went to her practice as a journalist,” he said.
“The underlying practice here is that there was no respect, at least from whoever breached the security here, for the concept of source protection.”