Skype accused of making "call snooping easier"

Rumours resurface that Skype made it easier for intelligence agencies to listen into calls

Shona Ghosh
21 Jun 2013

Skype has been accused of setting up a secret, internal project exploring how to let intelligence agencies monitor VoIP calls while staying within the bounds of the law.

Just a handful of employees were aware of the program, known as Project Chess, which was set up years before Microsoft bought the company for $8.5 billion in 2011, according to sources speaking to the New York Times.

If true, the allegations mean that Skype was already looking at ways to listen in on users' calls long before the controversial National Security Agency data-collection program, Prism, was in place.

Slides released by former CIA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden showed Skype allegedly joined Prism in February 2011. But according to the sources, Project Chess actually began about five years ago.

However, it isn't clear what exactly Project Chess allowed Skype or intelligence agencies to monitor. Skype would not comment on the allegations.

Fuel to the fire

Skype and Microsoft have faced multiple snooping accusations over the last few years. Skype was accused last year of altering its architecture to give agencies better access to its users’ communications at Microsoft’s behest, which it denied.

The firm moved its "supernodes" - directories which find the correct recipient for calls - into Microsoft's data centres last year. It was speculated that this would give intelligence agencies easier access to call data.

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

The company said its architectural changes under Microsoft did not "provide for monitoring or recording of calls".

But according to the New York Times, Skype had already worked out how to co-operate with intelligence agencies some months before the Microsoft acquisition.

Shortly after the deal, Microsoft applied for a patent that would allow it to intercept VoIP calls, fuelling the spying rumours.

And earlier this year, the company re-engineered Skype's supernodes so that voice data began to pass through monitored servers, making calls less secure and easier to wiretap. Research by Ars Technica last year suggested Microsoft was potentially decrypting and reading instant messages itself.

It's already possible for Microsoft to allow third parties to intercept Skype. Researchers at the University of New Mexico found the tweaked version of Skype available in China allows the Chinese government to search for censored words or phrases within instant messages and copy the chats. Microsoft even describes the tinkered software as a version of Skype that "follows Chinese regulations".

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