How Microsoft lets the Chinese government spy on its citizens via Skype

Skype is one of the biggest players when it comes to communication services on the internet. As such, it's very important for its users to know that their data is secure and their privacy is respected. However, there have been numerous rumors and allegations that Skype is not as secure as it should be, especially in places such as China where the government monitors online communications. 

Thanks to the work of Jeffrey Knockel, a science graduate at the University of New Mexico, we now have a much better understanding of how the Chinese government uses Skype to spy on its citizens. His work focuses on text sent via Skype and has nothing to do with VOIP. The regular version of Skype is not available in China but a different, modified, version called TOM-Skype is. This modified version is a joint venture between TOM Online, a Chinese telecommunications company, and Microsoft.

Bloomberg reports that the young graduate has been delving deep into TOM-Skype's code and has managed to reveal that the program uses a list to search for keywords within users' texts. If a keyword is found, the entire communication is recorded and sent back to TOM's servers along with the user's identifying info as well as the receiving user's info. Suspicion that this was happening has been hovering around Skype and Microsoft for quite a while now, with privacy and freedom advocates demanding that Microsoft publicly disclose such practices.

Knockel actually managed to break the encryption around the list of keywords that the program would search for. These include terms such as " Amnesty International" and "Tienanmen" but the list gets updated periodically to keep up with current events.

When asked to comment on the situation Microsoft distanced themselves from TOM-Skype saying that TOM Online is the majority stakeholder and as such they have altered he program to comply with local laws. This stance comes in conflict with Microsoft's official position on freedom of information and speech. The company is a founding member of the Global Network Initiative, a group that promotes corporate responsibility in online freedom of expression.  

What's even more worrying, says Knockel, is that recent changes to TOM-Skype's code have made it so that even users of regular Skype outside of China have their info recorded when they communicate with someone using TOM-Skype.

Source: Bloomberg Businessweek  | Image via MaximumPC

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