Microsoft, Skype and Privacy Conspiracies

3 minute read
Josette Rigsby avatar

Microsoft acquired Skype last May, triggering more than afew posts, comments and tweets expressing fear about the Seattle giant changingthe software. Time passed, and excluding a few outages, discussions of Skypeand Microsoft slowed. This week that changed when hackers accused the companyof modifying the software’s architecture to make it easier to monitor usercommunications.

Skype Plus Microsoft Equals Big Brother?

Governments have been busy updating their surveillance regulations for the Internet age. Many countries now have laws that force providers of online communication services to support wiretapping in much the same way that phones have for decades. Skype has long resisted such efforts and the service’s strong encryption and peer-to-peer model made it almost impossible to spy on communications, but things might be changing.

Hacker news has been buzzing this week with allegations that Microsoft is actively modifying Skype to make wiretapping easier. The changes actually occurred two months ago. Skype’s peer-to-peer based architecture was a big contributor to its highly publicized outages. Skype assigns more responsibility for directing traffic to some of the nodes in its network. Not all of the super nodes were updated when Skype pushed out new software, which took the network down. Microsoft relocated many of these super nodes to dedicated Linux servers in secure data centers under their control.

The centralization of the nodes coupled with a few sections of Skype’s privacy policy that indicate the service can monitor user information, keep messages and voice mails for up to 60 days and provide information to judicial and law enforcement authorities, fueled conspiracy theories that Microsoft has turned Skype into a tool for “the man.” Insert evil laugh. Skype isn’t the first service to experience a public whipping for its privacy. This May IBM gave iPhones the boot because Siri records requests and sends the data to Apple. Cloud sharing services like DropBox have also been heavily criticized.

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Much Ado About Nothing

I won’t speculate on the rationale for Skype’s changes, but like many Internet conspiracy theories, this one might be a little overblown. Like other services, Skype must keep communications to give features like history. From an architectural perspective, leaving key system components of a monetized enterprise solution completely uncontrolled isn’t exactly a sound approach. If Microsoft plans to increase sales of Skype in the enterprise market, it has to ensure the platform is stable.

It’s not unreasonable to suggest legal compliance might also be a driver for Microsoft’s rules. Microsoft is an enormous multi-national organization. Governments are more likely to go after a company of its size than one of Skype’s previous independent stature. Even if the change was made to support monitoring --so what. Most of the countries that are expanding their reach to online services already have the power to tap into other forms of communication. Including Skype to the mix doesn’t really change much.

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