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Skype admits Chinese privacy breach

Text messages tapped as well as censored

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

VoIP outfit Skype has admitted that surveillance was carried out on instant messages sent using the service in China, blaming local partner TOM Online for the eavesdropping.

The eBay subsidiary said that it only discovered this week that a text-filter used to block conversations containing sensitive keywords had been altered to store and log conversations, AFP reports. Skype publicly acknowledged the filter two years ago.

Skype had assured customers that messages containing sensitive words were discarded at the client end, and that full end-to-end security is preserved and there is no compromise of people's privacy.

The VoIP provider said that the practice had been altered "without our knowledge or consent" and apologised.

The issue came to light after researchers from Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto, were able to establish that TOM-Skype was "censoring and logging" text chat messages containing certain keywords. These included democracy, earthquake and milk powder. Mentions of Falun Gong, political opposition to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, or support for Taiwan as a separate political entity also got the tapes rolling, the New York Times reports.

The logged messages were stored on eight insecure publicly-accessible servers, allowing Citizen Lab to read messages and expose the eavesdropping. The researchers discovered a million censored messages, and were able to work out a list of trigger words by sampling them.

Skype "urgently addressed" the situation with TOM, which closed the security hole. Skype president Josh Silverman said: "We are currently addressing the wider issue of the uploading and storage of certain messages with TOM."

Western firms operating in China commonly adopt the line that they are only local laws when caught kowtowing to the Chinese state's security apparachiks. Whatever Skype does, it's likely to continue to toe the party line.

Skype promotes its platform as offering end-to-end encryption, but the reports from China cast doubt on this assertion. Similar reports from Germany do no more to help the provider. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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