Blown To Bits

Massive Chinese Surveillance of Skype

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008 by Harry Lewis

A report out of the University of Toronto, sponsored by the OpenNet Initiative, reveals that text messages sent via the Chinese variant of the popular Skype software, known as TOM-Skype, are not only filtered and censored, but stored, apparently for later analysis. The report is only 12 well structured pages and easy to read. There is also a New York Times story about these discoveries.

In 2005, Skype, which is owned by eBay, formed a business relationship with TOM Online, a Chinese provider of wireless services, to launch the Chinese version of Skype called TOM-Skype. The service advertises end-to-end encryption, making it a favorite of dissidents and democracy advocates. The Epoch Times reported, for example,

Skype has become a popular communication tool among democracy activists in mainland China in recent years. Due to its excellent vocal clarity, fewer imposed restrictions, and an end-to-end encryption feature making it difficult to monitor, many Chinese democracy activists have favored Skype over traditional telephones and other similar communication tools.

It’s been known for some time that not all text messages were getting through, and that mentioning Falun Gong and such prohibited institutions would cause messages to go undelivered. When called on it, Skype claimed that the messages were simply discarded. Not true.

Not only not true, but drastically not true. The full text of the messages is retained on servers in China along with the identifying information about their source and destination — and so are some messages without any significant keywords, apparently logged based simply on their sender and recipient information.

Due to weak security on the TOM-Skype servers, the researcher was able to download more than one hundred thousand messages and analyze them. Many mentioned the Communist Party or quitting the party or Falun, but others mentioned democracy, the Olympic Games, Taiwan, or milk powder.

The technology is there to do the surveillance — and much of it is in private hands, cooperating with governments in highly profitable ventures that are not what they seem to be.

Skype unequivocally states that there is no surveillance of voice conversations. But why should anyone believe them?

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