Feeds

China Skype service snags and stores users' messages

More than a million messages logged

Next gen security for virtualised datacentres

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. ®

The essential guide to IT transformation

More from The Register

next story
6 Obvious Reasons Why Facebook Will Ban This Article (Thank God)
Clampdown on clickbait ... and El Reg is OK with this
So, Apple won't sell cheap kit? Prepare the iOS garden wall WRECKING BALL
It can throw the low cost race if it looks to the cloud
EE fails to apologise for HUGE T-Mobile outage that hit Brits on Friday
Customer: 'Please change your name to occasionally somewhere'
Time Warner Cable customers SQUEAL as US network goes offline
A rude awakening: North Americans greeted with outage drama
We need less U.S. in our WWW – Euro digital chief Steelie Neelie
EC moves to shift status quo at Internet Governance Forum
BT customers face broadband and landline price hikes
Poor punters won't be affected, telecoms giant claims
prev story

Whitepapers

Endpoint data privacy in the cloud is easier than you think
Innovations in encryption and storage resolve issues of data privacy and key requirements for companies to look for in a solution.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Advanced data protection for your virtualized environments
Find a natural fit for optimizing protection for the often resource-constrained data protection process found in virtual environments.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Next gen security for virtualised datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.