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It's Terrifying And Sickening That Microsoft Can Now Listen In On All My Skype Calls

October 18, 2012 | Telepresence Options
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Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Skype CEO Tony Bates speak about Microsoft's purchase of Skype on May 10, 2011. Did user privacy die that day? (Getty Images via @daylife)
By Eric Jackson,

There was a wildly terrifying story published late Friday on Slate that didn't get much attention because of the time of the week it was released.

In it, the author - Ryan Gallagher - lays out how Microsoft (MSFT) seems to have made some subtle and (to most) imperceptible changes to the popular Skype calling service that allows it to eavesdrop on all of your calls going forward. (Forbes contributor Anthony Wing Kosner flagged the service changes in an earlier  post published July 18.)


Although it's not completely clear, some seem to think that Microsoft may have made the changes either from or in anticipation of pressure from various government entities.

Shocked?  I certainly was.

One of the reasons that Skype has grown so swiftly in the last 5 years was the belief by many users that the founders from Luxembourg had taken steps to make the service one of the most locked-down and encrypted services available to communicate with.

But in May 2011, Microsoft announced that it was spending $8.5 billion to buy Skype and that it would form a new division within the software giant.  From the start, observers wondered how Microsoft could justify paying so much for a service that most of its users pay nothing for but which still lets them talk for free to other Skype users.  Microsoft countered by saying that Skype was the world leaders in voice-over-IP communications and it wanted to own that brand and was sure that it could be sold alongside other popular Microsoft enterprise-focused software and services.

(Given that Microsoft just wrote down its last blockbuster multi-billion dollar acquisition by $6.2 billion after paying $6.3 billion for aQuantive in 2007, it's hard not to be suspicious that they haven't made the same mistake with Skype.  But, we'll see....)

As Gallagher points out, "in June [2011], 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.'"

Gallagher tried several times last week to confirm that Microsoft had changed Skype's policies and technologies to allow for accessing all communications.  He got no response, which strongly suggests that they are able to do this.  It's also important to note that Skype/Microsoft denied the allegation that the change to its architecture this Spring had anything to do with surveillance, according to the Slate article.

Why is this so significant?

    * Most Skype users are still under the legacy impression that Skype communications are private -- more private than even their regular old phone conversations.
    * If this has changed since the Microsoft acquisition, it hasn't been overtly communicated to users.  It's unclear why, but presumably Microsoft worries that Skype's meteoric growth would be stunted if more people knew about this privacy adjustment made behind their backs.
    * Since the Microsoft purchase, it has been heavily promoted to Facebook (FB) users as an additional communications tool within the Facebook platform.  Yet, new sign-ups to the Skype service are also likely not aware of the capability

It's not bad enough the big web companies are trying to track every keystroke we make, website we visit, and image we hover over -- with Facebook and any other cookie maker leader the charge.  They also want to nefariously go around Apple's (AAPL) stated privacy policies and track our geographic location -- thanks Google (GOOG).  Now, they want to track our every utterance and text message via Skype.

I don't know if it's going to be Apple or some other smaller company trying to knock Skype off its leadership perch in VOIP calling, but it seems to me that there is a huge opportunity for big and small Web/mobile companies to champion true user privacy.  I'm willing to bet that a huge proportion of users would opt for it if truly given the choice in a clear and open manner, instead of having the choice hidden from their view.

This latest back-door changing of the rules by Microsoft is truly terrifying - and sickening.







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