Skype is answering concerns about its joint venture with TOM Online in China. A report released Thursday by Canadian human-rights activists revealed a massive surveillance system that monitors Skype messages containing words China's government deems offensive.
Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto, released the report, Breaching Trust: An analysis of surveillance and security practices on China's TOM-Skype platform.
Skype Speaks Out
Skype President Josh Silverman wrote on the company's blog about the company's position and what the eBay subsidiary is doing.
Silverman wrote that Chinese regulations include the requirement to monitor and block instant messages that offend Chinese authorities. Examples include "Taiwan independence," "the Falun Gong," and "political opposition to the Communist Party of China."
"It is common knowledge that censorship does exist in China and that the Chinese government has been monitoring communications in and out of the country for many years," Silverman wrote. "This, in fact, is true for all forms of communication such as e-mails, fixed and mobile phone calls, and instant messaging between people within China and between China and other countries."
Silverman added that Skype publicly disclosed in April 2006 that TOM operated a text filter blocking certain words in text messages, and that if a message is found to be unsuitable, TOM is supposed to discard it. Skype, he insisted, didn't realize TOM was storing the messages and is now digging into the issue to find out why the protocol changed.
Could Internet Monitoring Come to U.S.?
What's more, Skype said it learned about a security break for the first time on Wednesday. The breach made it possible for people to gain access to the stored messages on TOM's servers. Silverman said TOM quickly moved to fix the breach.
"It's important to remind everybody that the issues highlighted in yesterday's Information Warfare Monitor/ONI Asia report refer only to communications in which one or more parties are using TOM software to conduct instant messaging," Silverman said. "It does not affect communications where all parties are using standard Skype software. Skype-to-Skype communications are, and always have been, completely secure and private."
Silverman was referring to the University of Toronto's Information Warfare Monitor Web site, which archived more than 166,000 censored messages from 44,000 users in a two-month period.
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, called the Skype issue a reflection of an ongoing concern that surveillance practices of major countries will diminish the privacy rights of Internet users.
"The focus has been on China for the last several years because of the Yahoo incident and increasing concerns about Google and Cisco," he said, "But there could be similar concerns about the United States, which is also asking Internet companies to develop techniques that make it easier to conduct surveillance of Internet users."