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China Skype service snags and stores users' messages

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Human rights advocates have uncovered a huge surveillance system in China that monitors and archives text messages sent with the Tom-Skype chat client when they contain politically charged words.

Activists with Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto say they found a cluster of computers in China that had logged more than one million messages containing sensitive words such as Falun Gong, Taiwan and earthquake. The Tom-Skype chat software is offered through a joint venture of eBay, which owns the Skype service, and the Tom Group of Hong Kong.

The group found the huge cache of intercepted messages when one of its members began analyzing the Tom-Skype client. Each time he typed the word "fuck" into the program, an encrypted messages was sent to a remote location. The group eventually tracked the archive to Tom Online servers and shortly afterward discovered that the directories were accessible using a common web browser.

The discovery raises troubling questions about the extent to which online auctioneer eBay and the Tom Group cooperate with the Chinese government's monitoring of dissidents. While Skype says here that Tom-Skype has a list of words that will not be displayed during text chats, it goes on to assure users that "full end-to-end security is preserved and there is no compromise of people’s privacy."

"While Skype specifically stated that censored messages are 'simply discarded and not displayed or transmitted anywhere,' this report demonstrates that not only are filtered messages transmitted to and stored on TOM-Skype servers located in China, but also that the servers themselves are configured with such poor security that it is possible to retrieve and decrypt these logs," the group argues in a report (PDF) issued Wednesday.

Representatives from eBay weren't immediately available for comment. A spokeswoman told The New York Times, which reported the discovery earlier: "The security breach does not affect Skype's core technology or functionality." She went on to say: "It exists within an administrative layer on Tom Online servers." eBay didn't comment on the archiving of Tom-Skype user messages, The Times said.

Each machine inspected by the group contained a directory of encrypted messages and a separate directory with the key needed to unscramble the the log files. They contained the IP addresses, user names and content of text messages that had been caught in the Tom-Skype filter. They also included records of Skype voice conversations, including names, and in some cases phone numbers, of the calling parties.

The revelation adds eBay and the Tom Group to the growing list of companies who may be willing to compromise the experience of their users in order to assuage Chinese authorities. In that respect, the online auctioneer is no different from Cisco Systems, Google, Yahoo and others. But the activists took eBay to task for its public statements suggesting otherwise.

"What is clear is that Tom-Skype is engaging in extensive surveillance with seemingly little regard for the security and privacy of Skype users," they wrote. "This is in direct contradiction of Skype’s public statements regarding their policies in China."

The Times has much more here. ®

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