Is Skype eavesdropping on you?

The Week

The popular chat service is reportedly sharing conversations and user data with police who are tracking terrorists and pedophiles — sparking concerns about privacy

Skype, the online phone and messaging service, is expanding "its cooperation with law enforcement authorities to make online chats and other user information available to police," say Craig Timberg and Ellen Nakashima at The Washington Post. That revelation follows a stream of speculation in the blogosphere that Skype, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2011, has made changes to its nearly impenetrable communications system to eavesdrop on user conversations, a move that internet privacy advocates have described as "terrifying" and "sickening." Here, a guide to the controversy:

Is Skype really eavesdropping? 
No one knows for sure, but Skype allegedly changed the architecture of its communications system to make "'lawful interception' of calls easier," says Jamie Condliffe at Gizmodo. The reported change came during "technical upgrades to Skype that were instituted to address outages and other stability issues," say Timberg and Nakashima, an explanation that looks suspiciously like a coverup to some security experts.

Why would Skype be working with police?
Skype is a favorite form of communication among criminals because its "strong encryption and complex peer-to-peer network connections" make it nearly impossible to intercept calls, says Ryan Gallagher at Slate. Indeed, "jihadis recommended the service on online forums," say Timberg and Naskashima, as opposed to using traditional telephones or email. So just like other telecommunications companies, Skype has come under pressure from law enforcement authorities around the world to share information that could lead to the breakup of criminal networks run by terrorists, drug gangs, and pedophiles.

What does Skype say?
Skype denies that it made technical changes to aid police surveillance, says Nick Wingfield at The New York Times. Skype also insists that it has always cooperated with law enforcement agencies "as much as is legally and technically possible." That's actually a "big turnaround" for the company, says Condliffe, which "was actively against helping law enforcement agencies" only a few years ago.

What changed?
Many suspect that Microsoft "may have made the changes either from or in anticipation of pressure from various government entities," says Erick Jackson at Forbes. However, Microsoft "will neither confirm nor deny that it has built a backdoor into Skype" that would allow the equivalent of government wiretaps, says Robert X. Cringely at PCWorld.

Why is this significant?
It's "bad enough the big web companies are trying to track every keystroke we make, website we visit, and image we hover over," says Jackson. "Now, they want to track our every utterance and text message via Skype." And the "overarching concern…is not the interception requests per se — it's that Skype isn't being candid about the status of its relationship with law enforcement," says Gallagher

Will customers care?
"The life cycle of internet companies is such that even behemoths like Facebook and Skype are not assured continued relevance if their users stop feeling good about them," says Anthony Wing Kosner at Forbes. However, "what's the alternative?" says Dennis Howlett at ZDNet. Millions upon millions of people use Skype, and it's doubtful that "even this potential 'threat' to privacy will encourage them to move to another provider." 

Sources: Forbes (2)Gizmodo, The New York TimesPCWorldSlateThe Washington Post, ZDNet

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