Don’t believe the Skype: it may not be as private as you might think

Dan Gillmor writes: When Skype became popular just under a decade ago, I repeatedly asked the company a question that I considered crucial. The online calling and messaging service encrypted users’ communications, and it was based outside the United States. But the encryption methods were kept secret, so outside researchers couldn’t verify their quality – a technique that experts in the field sometimes deride as “security through obscurity” – and I wanted to know whether Skype had a software backdoor that it or anyone else could use to listen into users’ calls. I was repeatedly given a non-denial denial – that is, an assurance that the information was being encrypted but no guarantee beyond that. So I assumed that Skype shouldn’t be considered a foolproof way to have an absolutely private conversation.

That assumption grew firmer when eBay bought Skype in 2005, putting Skype under American legal jurisdiction at a time when the Bush administration was routinely and illegally spying on citizens’ communications and Congress was a partner in destroying civil liberties. Moreover, eBay had a reputation for giving law enforcement just about anything it requested under just about any pretext.

Washington’s attitudes are, if anything, more police-statish than before. The Republicans don’t believe in any restraints on police, while Democrats who hated the Bush policies are supine now that the Obama administration has, if anything, expanded on the worst of the prior administration’s practices. And Skype now is part of Microsoft. So I am yawning at a spate of reports, most recently in the Washington Post, that Microsoft is giving law enforcement what torture fans might call “enhanced access” to Skype users’ conversations. The company’s statement on the matter says no recent changes have been made; but Skype also says this: “Skype takes appropriate organisational and technical measures to protect your information within our control with due observance of the applicable obligations and exceptions under the relevant law.”

To be clear, I don’t know one way or the other whether Skype has been secretly helping police and security officials listen in on conversations. I do know that the company, as in its statement above, persists in giving non-answers to the question. [Continue reading…]

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