Skype – Changes to improve service could alter privacy

Skype, the online phone service long favored by users to bypass traditional phone companies and ensure private conversations, is undergoing changes. One of the features, to be able to communicate beyond the reach of governments, has made this an important tool for political dissidents.

Unfortunately, it has also attracted the attention of criminals. If you are a Skype user, you may have noticed some outages over the past year, as the network has grown to become one of the largest communications companies. To solve those problems, Skype is now going to direct all communications through centralized servers. In the past, communications had been direct, from computer to computer but this has created quality and service issues. Now that they are using centralized servers, the online chats and possibly voice and video calls may be available to governments, depending on the laws in place for each country.

It should be pointed out that surveillance of the audio and video feeds remains impractical — even when courts issue warrants, according to industry officials with direct knowledge of the matter. But that barrier could eventually vanish.

The changes to online chats, which are written messages conveyed almost instantaneously between users, result in part from technical upgrades to Skype that were instituted to address outages and other stability issues since Microsoft bought the company last year. Officials of the United States and other countries have long pushed to expand their access to newer forms of communications to resolve an issue that the FBI calls the “going dark” problem.

Hacker groups and privacy experts have been speculating for months that Skype had changed its architecture to make it easier for governments to monitor, and many blamed Microsoft, which has an elaborate operation for complying with legal government requests in countries around the world.

Microsoft has approached the issue with tremendous sensitivity and a canny awareness of what the issues would be. The company has a long track record of working successfully with law enforcement here and internationally.

Authorities had for years complained that Skype’s encryption and other features made tracking drug lords, pedophiles and terrorists more difficult. Jihadis recommended the service on online forums. Police listening to traditional wiretaps occasionally would hear wary suspects say to one another, “Hey, let’s talk on Skype.”

Skype was slow to clarify the situation, issuing a statement recently that said, “As was true before the Microsoft acquisition, Skype cooperates with law enforcement agencies as is legally required and technically feasible.” Changes allowing police surveillance of online chats had been made since late last year. In the United States, such requests require a court order, though in other nations rules vary. Skype has more than 600 million users, with some in nearly every nation in the world. Political dissidents relied on it extensively during the Arab Spring to communicate with journalists, human rights workers and each other, in part because of its reputation for security.

Skype’s resistance to government monitoring, part of the company ethos when European engineers founded it in 2003, resulted from both uncommonly strong encryption and a key technical feature: Skype calls connected computers directly rather than routing data through central servers, as many other Internet-based communication systems do. That makes it more difficult for law enforcement to intercept the call. The authorities long have been able to wiretap Skype calls to traditional phones.

The company created a law-enforcement compliance team not long after eBay bought the company in 2005, putting it squarely under the auspices of U.S. law. The company was later sold to private investors before Microsoft bought it in May 2011 for $8.5 billion.

Industry officials said the resulting push for the creation of so-called “supernodes,” which routed some data through centralized servers, made greater cooperation with law enforcement authorities possible. The access to personal information and online chats, which are kept in Skype’s systems for 30 days, remains short of what some law enforcement officials have requested.

Hackers in recent years have demonstrated that it was possible to penetrate Skype, but it’s not clear how often this happened. Microsoft won a patent in June 2011 for “legal intercept” of Skype and similar Internet-based voice and video systems. It is also possible, experts say, to monitor Skype chats as well as voice and video by hacking into a user’s computer, doing an end run around encryptions. If someone wants to compromise a Skype communication, all they have to do is hack the endpoint — the person’s computer or tablet or mobile phone, which is very easy to do.

Some industry officials, however, say Skype loses some competitive edge in the increasingly crowded world of Internet-based communications systems if users no longer see it as more private than rival services.



About SCB Enterprises
System Solutions and Integration

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