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Report: Skype set up Project Chess to enable official snooping

Surveillance team in place before Microsoft took over

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For the last five years, Skype has been running an internal team called Project Chess to investigate methods to allow law enforcement to listen in on users' phone calls, sources have told The New York Times.

Project Chess was set up after the company (then owned by eBay) started having discussions with the government over monitoring communications. The Project Chess team, which never numbered more than a dozen people, was tasked with exploring the legal and technical issues of letting the US government monitor Skype traffic, sources who have been briefed on the situation told the NYT.

According to the PRISM PowerPoint released by NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden, Skype joined that program in February 6, 2011, but it now appears that calls may have been monitored before this time, thanks to Project Chess.

According to the NYT, Microsoft executives are "no longer willing to affirm" comments made in the past that Skype calls are secure from wiretapping. A representative told El Reg that Microsoft has nothing to say on the matter at this time.

Skype management did issue a public statement last year about fears that it was reorganizing its internal systems to make spying on calls possible. It denied these rumors, saying the changes in the use of traffic "supernodes" were intended to make calls more reliable and make life easier for consumers.

"Our position has always been that when a law enforcement entity follows the appropriate procedures, we respond where legally required and technically feasible," it said at the time.

The news about Project Chess has now refocused attention on these claims. Security guru Bruce Schneier is less than impressed with the company's response.

"Reread that Skype denial from last July, knowing that at the time the company knew that they were giving the NSA access to customer communications. Notice how it is precisely worded to be technically accurate, yet leave the reader with the wrong conclusion," he wrote in a blog post.

"This is where we are with all the tech companies right now; we can't trust their denials, just as we can't trust the NSA – or the FBI – when it denies programs, capabilities, or practices." ®

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