Some sort of access to citizen phone calls is required by many governments around the world whether that be warranted-required wiretaps or dictator-ordered interceptions. Because of how they operate and the lag time it takes for law to catch up with technology, until now VoIP services have been generally excluded from this backdoor access unless a company specifically decides to allow access. Microsoft seems to have decided it is now time to make the required changes to enable spying on Skype calls.
Last year Microsoft dished out $8.5 billion to buy mostly profit-less Skype. At the time there was much speculation about what Microsoft will do with Skype. However, no one anticipated this change. You see prior to Skype being acquired by Microsoft, it was a Luxembourg-based company. This means it didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of many governments and, unless a government strong-armed it, Skype didn’t have to comply with domestic laws for backdoor access to calls. Plus, according to Skype, it couldn’t provide wiretap access even if it wanted to because of its “peer-to-peer architecture and encryption techniques”. Microsoft, on the other hand, is based in the USA but is a global company with global operations. It has to appease many governments. As such, it appears Microsoft has anticipated requests from governments for access to Skype calls and recently might have introduced a change to the service that will do just that.
According to Ryan Gallagher of Slate, “hackers alleged that Skype made a change to its architecture this spring that could possibly make it easier to enable ‘lawful interception’ of calls” and “in June , Microsoft was granted a patent for ‘legal intercept’ technology designed to be used with VOIP services like Skype to ‘silently copy communication transmitted via the communication session’. The patent grant along with unofficial reports is not concrete proof but is enough for concern.
Skype has issued a statement to Extremetech refuting claims by above-mentioned hackers but Skype refuses to officially confirm or deny if it has introduced the ability to spy on Skype VoIP calls. As such, it isn’t entirely clear if Skype has indeed added the ability to backdoor calls or if the change detected by hackers are only an “upgrade” as Skype told Extremetech.
Seeing as there is mounting pressure from governments around the world, ranging from privacy-touting democracies such as United States and Australia (both of whom have attempted to introduce laws that require wiretap access to VoIP calls) to dictatorships, it isn’t surprising that Microsoft would add backdoor access to Skype. In fact the issue isn’t even that backdoor access has been added; after all, wiretapping capability has exited on traditional phone systems for a long time and it was (is) bound to happen for VoIP, too; the boogeyman isn’t necessarily Microsoft. The issue is Microsoft/Skype need to be clear about spying capabilities on Skype calls, if indeed it is happening.