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A group of Canadian researchers has discovered that a Chinese version of the communications software Skype is being used to filter and record text chats that include politically charged words, such as "democracy", "Tibet" and "Communist Party". The finding by Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto research group that focuses on politics and the Internet, has provoked outcry among free expression and privacy advocates.

Skype, used to make telephone calls and send instant messages over the Internet, is widely touted by activists and dissidents as a safe way to communicate sensitive information. Skype routes calls and chats between computers over the Internet, avoiding phone networks. The company itself advertises secure end-to-end encryption.

But the eBay-owned firm was made to apologise last week after Citizen Lab revealed that its Chinese partner TOM-Skype not only scans text chats for sensitive keywords and blocks those messages from reaching their destination - which Skype had admitted earlier, but also stores them along with millions of personal user records on computers that could easily be accessed by anybody.

"It was our understanding that it was not TOM's protocol to upload and store chat messages with certain keywords," Josh Silverman, Skype's president, wrote on a blog last week. "And we are now inquiring with TOM to find out why the protocol changed." TOM-Skype is a joint venture between eBay and the Hong Kong based TOM Group.

Nart Villeneuve, the author of the report, found that he was able to view, download and archive more than a million stored messages that identify users, ranging from business transactions to political correspondence.

It wasn't just TOM-Skype users who were affected. Any Skype user who communicated with a TOM-Skype user was vulnerable, according to the report. And it didn't appear that keywords were the only trigger. Other factors, possibly individual usernames, might have been used to catalogue data.

Skype maintains that its computer-to-computer voice calls are not affected and are completely secure.

"This is a wake up call to everyone who has ever put their (blind) faith in the assurances offered up by network intermediaries like Skype. Declarations and privacy policies are no substitute for the type of due diligence that the research put forth here represents," says the report.

The researchers said they did not know who was operating the surveillance system, but they said they suspected that it was the Chinese wireless firm, possibly with cooperation from Chinese police.

The discovery draws more attention to the Chinese government's Internet monitoring and filtering efforts, which created controversy this summer during the Beijing Olympics. According to "The New York Times", researchers in China have estimated that 30,000 or more "Internet police" monitor online traffic, websites and blogs for political and other offending content.

The Chinese government is not alone in its Internet surveillance efforts. In 2005, "The New York Times" reported that the National Security Agency was monitoring large volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States as part of the eavesdropping programme, intended to hunt for evidence of terrorist activity, that President Bush approved after the 11 September attacks.

Other U.S. companies have been caught up in controversy after cooperating with Chinese officials. Yahoo! has been widely criticised for helping the Chinese authorities identify Shi Tao, a reporter accused of leaking state secrets. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2005. The company said it was following Chinese law.

The full report, "Breaching Trust: An analysis of surveillance and
security practices on China's TOM-Skype platform", can be downloaded here (PDF, 1.5MB):
Also visit these links:
- "The New York Times":
- Silverman on Skype's blog:
(8 October 2008)

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