Skype spying on its Chinese users

A report by a Canadian research institute (Open Net Initiative) has revealed that the Chinese version of Skype records information about people who use "sensitive" keywords. It was only in 2006 that Skype vowed to all of its users, including those in China, that their confidentiality was in safe hands.

The Canadian report, entitled 'Breaching Trust' is the result of an investigation led by Nart Villeneuve, an internet censorship specialist. Findings show that when certain keywords like "falungong", "Taiwan independence" and "powdered milk" are typed into the chat tool, an alert is set off which links the computer to Tom - Skype's partner in China. The alert informs Tom of the computer user's name and their IP address (a permanent number that physically identifies a computer). By doing this, the American company is providing the Chinese authorities with an enormous database of "suspects" citizens' conversation particulars, which are automatically recorded.

It was already reported that Skype, which now owns eBay, censored certain sensitive words on the Chinese version of the programme by making them not appear on screen when typed in chat. But when grilled over the unethical restraints enforced by this system, the company claimed that the reason behind the block was, in fact, to protect the private lives of its users. Perhaps it was true at the time, but the Canadian report shows that it's certainly no longer the case today. Following the publication of the report, Skype publicly apologised to its Chinese users, saying that it was their Chinese partner who put in place the new surveillance system, without their knowledge.

Nart Villeneuve, author of the report, explains to us in detail how he made his discoveries, and one of our Chinese Observers, who works in the human rights field and uses Skype every day, tells us how disgusted he is by the American company's behaviour.

Contributors

"Skype-Tom automatically records all sensitive conversations"

Nart Villeneuve is the author of the report published by the ONI.

In examining information transmitted by the Chinese Skype, I noticed that some non-encrypted data packages were transferred to the Tom servers. That surprised me, because conversations sent on the the American Skype are normally all encrypted. So I went to what kind of information was being transmitted. That wasn't difficult because the Tom servers aren't protected.

It was pretty easy to access their repertoires, and the most incredible thing of all was that they actually gave the passwords to decrypt the packages sent over Skype. So I could open all the messages that had been transferred by Skype. And then I realised that the majority of them were sensitive conversations, but that some of them did not contain prohibited keywords. I deduced that it was likely that Tom was blacklisting certain names - under who's direction? - and recording the conversations internally.

It's happening in China, but it's also believed by many that the US government is able to access all types of electronic communication between its citizens. However, it's only supposed to be able to do it after presenting a warrant to Skype - it doesn't automatically survey them. At least, that's what we think."

"Dissidents might have been arrested because they were spied on when using Skype"

Wei Shi is the founder of Boxun.com, a site dedicated to human rights and freedom of expression in China. He now lives in the US.

It's almost a year since I told my contacts not to use the Chinese version of Skype - Tom-Skype. We already knew that that version censored certain "sensitive" words and we had every reason to believe that messages were recorded too. The Canadian report has only confirmed our doubts.

I use Skype to communicate with my contacts in China. But I've already taken precautions by telling everyone to use the American version. The problem is that when you try to connect to Skype from China, you're automatically directed to the Skype-Tom site. But we've found a way round it: we fitted American software on a Chinese server that's not censored, and used that URL to download it.

Although I might be wary of Skype, I'm sure that's not the case with all Chinese webusers, sadly. Skype lied when it told the Chinese that their privacy was secure. Dissidents might have been arrested because they were spied on when using it. I'm really disappointed by the attitude of this American enterprise."

Comments

Instead of urging everyone

Instead of urging everyone not to use services such as Skype, wouldn't it be wiser just to urge every Skype user to type in these sensitive words. By doing so, Skype will be flooded with so much irrelevant information that neither they nor anyone else will ever be able to process.

Sesitive words or sensitive China?

What I think, there is no such words sensitive, for the officials of China, there are always sensitive, e.g. If there is a person who is free and open mind, the every words will not be sensitive to him or her, right? I just want to say! Those officials who do not believe in freedom of speech or freedom press, and always manipulating the press freedom of people or the voice of people! there are sensitive by themselves.

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