Skype, which has previously been one of the few untappable forms of communication out there, is now kowtowing to the Man and making chat records more available to authorities. Time to bring back the pager and pay phone combo, folks.
Skype has gone under a number of updates and upgrades since it was bought by Microsoft last year, mostly in a bid to improve reliability. But according to a killer report by the Washington Post, Skype has also changed its system to make chat transcripts, as well as users’ addresses and credit card numbers, more easily shared with authorities.
Authorities had for years complained that Skype’s encryption and other features made tracking drug lords, pedophiles and terrorists more difficult. Jihadis recommended the service on online forums. Police listening to traditional wiretaps occasionally would hear wary suspects say to one another, “Hey, let’s talk on Skype.”
Hacker groups and privacy experts have been speculating for months that Skype had changed its architecture to make it easier for governments to monitor, and many blamed Microsoft, which has an elaborate operation for complying with legal government requests in countries around the world.
“The issue is, to what extent are our communications being purpose-built to make surveillance easy?” said Lauren Weinstein, co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility, a digital privacy group. “When you make it easy to do, law enforcement is going to want to use it more and more. If you build it, they will come.’’
Skype responded to the Post’s inquiries by saying that its always made a habit of complying with law enforcement when possible, but the new round of changes to the service have only appeared since Microsoft became owner. Microsoft has a long history of cooperating heavily with authorities, so this isn’t exactly unexpected. Nor is it surprising that an industry giant wouldn’t waste its time in an activist struggle with officials, especially when it doesn’t want to lose hard-won market share in the types of heavily-restricted countries that are also interested in monitoring any and all communications by dissidents.
So, yeah, blame Microsoft for starting to kill off Skype’s ability to provide secure communication — however, video and audio chats can’t be easily transcribed yet — but the privacy blow suggests a larger shift within the Internet. As we’ve already seen with Facebook and Twitter, big Internet firms aren’t digging their heels in against government requests, which shouldn’t come as a shock; pissing off the authorities is bad business. And so it goes with Microsoft’s Skype. I guess the lesson then is that, while the Internet will always retain a vestige of its Wild West days, as companies get bigger and bigger, they’re either going to play ball with governments or go the way of Kim Dotcom.
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.