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A Murky Picture on Skype Monitoring
A Murky Picture on Skype Monitoring

By Adam Dickter
July 24, 2012 3:19PM

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"The war on terror has had two major casualties: due process, and personal privacy," said analyst Rob Enderle. "If anyone thinks anything they do on a network or over a phone line is private, they are living about a decade in the past." Skype is enormously popular, with at least 663 million users as of last year, since Microsoft's basic Skype service is free.

Not bad enough that Facebook keeps all your photos and data and Google has a record of all your sensitive Internet searches.

Now comes word that the late-night Skype video chat you had with your long-distance significant other might live on in the servers of Microsoft.

'Silent Recording'

The software giant bought the Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol application, founded in 2003 by Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, last year for $8.5 billion and, as noted by Slate magazine in an article this week, Microsoft around the same time was granted a patent, first requested in January 2009, for "silently recording communications."

The technology's effect, according to the patent summary, is that "data associated with a request to establish a communication is modified to cause the communication to be established via a path that includes a recording agent."

Microsoft didn't definitively answer Slate's request for clarification on whether Skype's new technology would facilitate a request from law enforcement for wiretapping, and a company spokeswoman did not respond to our inquiry in time for publication.

The federal Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA, passed by Congress in 1994, requires that U.S. communications companies modify their systems to facilitate monitoring to enable real-time surveillance by authorities when granted permission by courts.

"I think people should assume they are being monitored regardless of their activity," said technology consultant Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group. "The (2001) Patriot Act gave government broad powers with regard to network and phone monitoring. CALEA preceded the Patriot Act and was expanded last decade to bring it in line with it."

A New Era

"The war on terror has had two major casualties: due process, and personal privacy," Enderle said. "If anyone thinks anything they do on a network or over a phone line is private, they are living about a decade in the past."

Skype is enormously popular, with at least 663 million users as of last year, since the basic service -- communications via webcam on computers -- is free. Skype makes its profit -- $860 million in 2011 -- from premium services, allowing chats with multiple users and VOIP calls to phones and mobile phones. The premium service is $4.99 per month based on a 12-month plan.

Both Research In Motion, maker of BlackBerry devices and their messaging system, and Twitter have been compelled to turn over information to law enforcement agencies recently to aid in the investigation of criminal activity during protest movements in the U.S. and U.K.

The Skype division of Microsoft is based in Luxembourg.

Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, said one gray area regards a U.S. communications company's obligation if a request for monitoring "came from a foreign government or if it involved monitoring calls where one or more callers were not in the U.S."

"So far as CALEA goes, it seems to have followed the course of similar past surveillance laws -- instituted for what seemed like mostly positive reasons but executed in ways that tended toward the negative."

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