Groups Want To Know About Skype Privacy
January 25, 2013

Privacy Groups Call On Microsoft, Skype To Disclose Government Snooping

Peter Suciu for — Your Universe Online

On Thursday, several groups including Reporters Without Borders and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, along with 43 other campaign groups, asked Microsoft via an open letter to reveal whether law enforcement can eavesdrop on calls among Skype´s 250 million monthly users worldwide.

The letter was addressed to Skype Division President Tony Bates, as well as Microsoft´s Chief Privacy Officer Brendon Lynch and Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith, and noted:

“Skype is a voice, video and chat communications platform with over 600 million users worldwide, effectively making it one of the world´s largest telecommunications companies. Many of its users rely on Skype for secure communications–whether they are activists operating in countries governed by authoritarian regimes, journalists communicating with sensitive sources, or users who wish to talk privately in confidence with business associates, family, or friends.

“It is unfortunate that these users, and those who advise them on best security practices, work in the face of persistently unclear and confusing statements about the confidentiality of Skype conversations, and in particular the access that governments and other third parties have to Skype user data and communications.”

Concerns over privacy on the Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service have existed since Microsoft bought Skype for $8.5 billion in cash back in May 2011.

The BBC reported Google, Twitter and other groups already provide such transparency reports, while Microsoft has responded that it would consider the request.

“We are reviewing the letter,” a spokeswoman told the BBC on Friday. “Microsoft has an ongoing commitment to collaborate with advocates, industry partners and 2,112 governments worldwide to develop solutions and promote effective public policies that help protect people's online safety and privacy.”

Currently, as noted in the open letter, more than 600 million people use Skype to make voice and video calls, as well as to send text and audio messages. Microsoft is currently in the process of migrating users from its Windows Live Messenger service to Skype.

Skype comment on alleged privacy issues in a blog post last July. In this post it noted:

“Skype's architecture decisions are based on our desire to provide the best possible product to our users. Skype was in the process of developing and moving supernodes to cloud servers significantly ahead of the Microsoft acquisition of Skype.”

Skype further noted calls made between two devices utilizing its software would be encrypted and thus would limit the ability for anyone to make sense of the data, even if it were possible to listen in. However, Microsoft also noted group calls using more than two computers did pass through its servers, which were used to “aggregate the media streams,” while text-based messages were stored on Microsoft computers for up to 30 days to ensure they were synchronized with users´ various devices.

And anyone who used Skype to call a landline or mobile phone would have that call routed through relevant network equipment, which means it would be possible to tap in. Moreover Skype´s Chinese-based version does involve some chats being stored and even uploaded to local authorities in compliance with that nation´s laws.

Other governments have looked to gain access to Skype´s data, as well. There have been reported attempts even, by some Middle Eastern governments, to use Trojans and other malware to get around Skype´s built-in encryption.

Currently, Skype still functions as a semi-independent division of Microsoft since its acquisition.