Yes, China Is Spying On Skype Conversations

from the end-to-end-to-gov't-encryption dept

Remember how Skype was supposed to be “untappable” due to end-to-end encryption? Well, we’ve already seen that’s not true, thanks to leaks that showed the German government had figured out ways to tap Skype, and it will probably come as no surprise to many that China has been tapping and storing Skype conversations. Some of the findings of this report are not new. Back in 2005, reports came out that various Chinese telecoms were investing in special “filters” for Skype that would block conversations using certain keywords. But, of course, it seemed rather obvious that if they were blocking those keywords, they would also use them to spy on what people were talking about. Besides, if the telecoms didn’t filter or record Skype, the Chinese government made it clear that it would block the use of Skype altogether.

The only really surprising part of the new report was the fact that the folks storing the messages did it so poorly that the researchers who discovered it were easily able to go in and read messages from others. It’s rather telling to note the responses from the two companies involved. A Skype spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal: “The idea that China’s government might be monitoring communications in and out of the country shouldn’t surprise anyone.” No, it shouldn’t surprise anyone, but one might think it’s rather troubling that Skype promotes itself as having end-to-end encryption, when that’s clearly not true. Even more telling, the only thing about this report that seemed to actually concern representatives from Skype was the fact that the conversations had been readable by outsiders, again, telling the WSJ that the “security issue” had been “remedied” by Skype’s partner in China, TOM Group. In other words, Skype isn’t so concerned about users being spied on, but it is concerned when people can figure out that users are being spied on.

As for TOM Group, its response is pretty much exactly what you’d expect on this issue: “as a Chinese company, we adhere to rules and regulations in China where we operate our businesses.” In other words, the government says they need to spy, so we let them spy. Nothing too surprising, but important for folks to know if they somehow thought that Skype’s supposed end-to-end encryption actually kept conversations secret in China.

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Companies: skype, tom group

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Comments on “Yes, China Is Spying On Skype Conversations”

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Chuck Norris' Enemy (deceased) says:

Our Government

We can only assume that all nations who have any surveillance of their populace are employing the “tap” also. When confronted with this, will they deny or state the truth? As in the Skype “block”, that makes no sense. The best way to keep track of dissenters is to know how and what they are communicating.

mslade says:

I'm outraged and done with Skype.

I currently use Skype, but no longer. I remember a time when it wasn’t common knowledge that every Office document had identification information embedded in it, and Chinese activitists were using Office to disseminate information for their cause. When China found out how to track this information, it led to the death of a handful of these activits. As an American I can get angry when I find out I’m being spied on, but it’s not likely to lead to my incarceration (unless I’m doing something illegal) or death.

Skype’s claim that they didn’t know that the spying was going on is absolutely not acceptable. If you operate an international business you need to think very carefully about your decision to do business in a blatantly oppressive country like China. If you do decide to, you need to watch your dealings there like a hawk to be sure that you are being ethical and responsible with your business.

Having failed at both of these, Skype has lost all of its credibility. They have sent a clear message to anyone who is paying attention that they value yen more over privacy, ethics, and human lives.

Peter Parkes (Skype Blogger) (user link) says:

A couple of clarifications

Mike – in your original post, you say ‘one might think it’s rather troubling that Skype promotes itself as having end-to-end encryption, when that’s clearly not true’. It’s important to point out that the issues referred to in the report concern only communications in which one or more parties are using TOM software to conduct instant messaging. It does not affect communications where all parties are using standard Skype software. Skype-to-Skype communications are, and always have been, completely secure and private.

mslade – you say ‘Skype’s claim that they didn’t know that the spying was going on is absolutely not acceptable.’ We’ve always acknowledged that TOM operates a text filter that blocks certain words in chat messages. However, it was also our understanding that it was not TOM’s protocol to upload and store chat messages with those keywords, and we’re now inquiring with TOM to find out why the protocol changed.

Josh Silverman, Skype’s president, has posted a comprehensive statement on the Skype blog explaining where we stand currently, and what we’re doing to sort things out, and I hope that it provides some clarity about the situation. Don’t hesitate to get in touch directly, though – we’re committed to being transparent about what’s going on.

S. E. W. says:

If the Chinese-language version scans messages up front (pre-encryption) for certain keywords and uploads such messages to their Chinese servers, it’s complately within reason to suspect that other versions do this too, especially given that US government engaged in pretty much the same behavior as the Chinese did, when it demanded that US telecoms scan e-mail.

Without getting too conspiracy-minded, an unscrupulous Skype employee may at present actually have the ability to use the same or similar feature on the US version for their own malicious purposes, say, trading industry secrets for $$$. This is definitely an additional risk for the Chinese-language version.

I think this is a serious enough risk that any business should consider dropping Skype’s services right away.

This is a prime example of why an open source solution is superior for this kind of application.

Scott Lithgow (user link) says:

Yes, China Is Spying On Skype Conversations

Here in the UK our present government has gone spying mad unfortunately it is on us the British Citizen.

I don’t like it but all this information they have seems to gather is either not admissible in court or be of such a technical nature that only “specialists” can understand it which means it is hard to know if justice is actually being done.

There are CCTV cameras everywhere but the image is either not of good enough quality where the individuals own mother would struggle to recognise him/her or not have a time stamp at all or in the correct format.

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