ONI Affiliate Reveals Chinese Surveillance of Skype Messages

By: Jillian C. York on 2 October 2008

Groundbreaking research by an ONI affiliate made major news today. Nart Villeneuve, a fellow at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, revealed in a joint Information Warfare Monitor/ONI Asia report Wednesday TOM-Skype, a special software for using Skype in Chinese, is being used to snoop on text chats containing certain keywords relating to topics such as Taiwanese independence and Falun Gong. Additional information not related to certain keywords has also been captured; Villeneuve's research indicates that perhaps certain usernames also trigger the system.

According to the report:

"The collected data affects all TOM-Skype users and also captures the personal information of any Skype users that interacted with registered TOM-Skype users."

Skype itself was not affected, as Villeneuve indicated in an FAQ:

"The Skype software downloaded from skype.com is not affected by the behavior. The only time “normal” Skype users are affected is when they communicate with TOM-Skype users."

The New York Times presented Skype's side of the story:

"Jennifer Caukin, an eBay spokeswoman, said, “The security and privacy of our users is very important to Skype.” But the company spoke to the accessibility of the messages, not their monitoring. “The security breach does not affect Skype’s core technology or functionality,” she said. “It exists within an administrative layer on Tom Online servers. We have expressed our concern to Tom Online about the security issue and they have informed us that a fix to the problem will be completed within 24 hours.” EBay had no comment on the monitoring."

TOM Group, the parent company of TOM-Skype's majority owner TOM Online, on the other hand, stated that as a Chinese company, they adhere to rules and regulations in China.

Of course, Skype is not the first US company to come under fire for kowtowing to Chinese authorities. Among others, Microsoft, Cisco, google and Yahoo have all been accused of complicity in building the Great Firewall of China.