Skype Surveillance Claims Denied
Architecture changes haven’t harmed privacy, says Skype
Skype has offered a riposte to claims it is opening up more user data to law enforcement officials, without actually denying outright it is handing over more information to police.
Reports have suggested that Skype is working more actively with law enforcement officials and a number of its architectural changes have played into the hands of police wanting to get hold of communications running over the Microsoft-owned service.
A number of changes at the firm could make Skype more open to handing data over to police. The company recently told TechWeekEurope that it planned on doing some big data work, which meant it would have to store user information on its own servers for the first time.
Microsoft has also taken control of the “supernodes”, which act as a distributed directory of Skype users. The supernodes used to consist of those regular users who had enough processing power to help keep the system up for other users. That change did not allow Skype to hold onto the content, but meant it did have certain communications data held in a centralised manner.
Yet Skype has claimed the architectural changes were not made to benefit police, but its users. “Some media stories recently have suggested Skype may be acting improperly or based on ulterior motives against our users’ interests. Nothing could be more contrary to the Skype philosophy,” said Mark Gillett, chief development and operations officer at Skype, in a blog post.
He claimed that Skype was already moving its supernodes into the cloud, including to Amazon’s EC2, before Microsoft bought the firm. It has done little different by moving all the supernodes into Microsoft-owned data centres. Gillett said this was done so “users can benefit from the network connectivity and support that powers Microsoft’s other global scale cloud software including Xbox Live, Bing, SkyDrive, Hotmail and Office 365.”
“The move to supernodes was not intended to facilitate greater law enforcement access to our users’ communications,” he added.
Gillett also said that the changes did not allow for wiretapping of calls and conversations did not pass through its data centres. Skype servers are used, however, “to assist in the establishment, management or maintenance of calls”. This includes notifying users when a call is incoming but the Skype app is not fully running, such as when a device is asleep.
As for instant messaging, “some messages are stored temporarily on our (Skype/Microsoft) servers for immediate or later delivery to a user,” Gillett said.
“If a law enforcement entity follows the appropriate procedures and we are asked to access messages stored temporarily on our servers, we will do so. I must reiterate we will do so only if legally required and technically feasible,” he added.
When asked whether it had seen increased activity with law enforcement, Skype said it had no comment for TechWeekEurope. Such reticence will cause some to worry.
Many fear the Communications Data Bill, if it becomes an Act, will mean police will be able to get hold of user data from Skype with far greater ease than it could now. The bill, which critics have labelled ‘Snooper’s Charter’, will make it simpler for police to request communications information, which does not include the content of messages but who has contacted who, from where and at what time.
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