Thursday, October 02, 2008

Skype monitored in China: intra- and international

The security of Skype as a missionary communications medium interests me.  I wrote about the German authorities difficulty with Skype's encrypted traffic here.

Then yesterday the New York Times had an article discussing the censoring, monitoring and archiving of Skype conversations.  For background Skype has developed a client (program you use on your computer) for use in mainland China in cooperation with local telecommunications company TOM.  The client, TOM-Skype, sends all of its traffic through TOM where it is censored, monitored and, apparently archived, says a Canadian activist group.

The activists, who are based at Citizen Lab, a research group that focuses on politics and the Internet at the University of Toronto, discovered the surveillance operation last month. They said a cluster of eight message-logging computers in China contained more than a million censored messages. They examined the text messages and reconstructed a list of restricted words.


The list also serves as a filter to restrict text conversations. The encrypted list of words inside the Tom-Skype software blocks the transmission of those words and a copy of the message is sent to a server. The Chinese servers retained personal information about the customers who sent the messages. They also recorded chat conversations between Tom-Skype users and Skype users outside China. The system recorded text messages and Skype caller identification, but did not record the content of Skype voice calls.

I had first heard about this earlier this week when a reader emailed me, cautioning me about Skype use China.  The reader mentioned the joint TOM-Skype conversation.  In fact, it turns out that this isn't news.  The Financial Times ran an article in April of 2006 citing the way TOM censored text messages.  Skype commented on that article the same month.

The NYT article is the first to point out, as best I can tell, that that message traffic is both being censored (previously documented) AND archived.  In the 2006 FT article Skype's chief executive, Niklas Zennström, said:

“One thing that’s certain is that those things are in no way jeopardising the privacy or the security of any of the users.”

The reality may be quite different.  According to the NYT the system is recording the messages and personal information of the users in- and out-side Chine.  It does not, apparently, record the content of audio conversations.

This is an interesting development for those of us who may work in politically sensitive environments.  While China is probably a bit of an "edge-case" when it comes to government monitoring of telecommunications it is a cautionary tale for all of us.

UPDATE: Skype's president comments on the story here.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Skype 4.0 beta 2 release shifts focus

The good folks at Skype have just released version 4.0 beta 2 and it's a step in the right direction.  The previous beta came out in June, I believe, and it annoyed me.  Fortunately, it must have annoyed a lot of people.  After studying 350,000 users Skype is redesigning the look and feel of version 4 and bringing back some of the older flexibility.

If I had to explain it I would say that the older version had a user interface that balanced the text, voice and video capabilities of Skype.  Beta one skewed the focus all the way over to video and made text a little more awkward to use.  That was an important change for me as not everyone I communicate with has Internet service capable of supporting video, much less a quality voice connection.

Mike Bartlett, from Skype explains more.

See also the Skype blog,  JK, DownloadSquadSaunders and download it here.

How do you know if you've reached your limit?

All of us who live overseas have to contend with interesting Internet connections.  Those may range from "all you can eat," mega-fast broadband connections in western Europe to periodic satellite pings for a friend of mine in West Africa.  Some packages have transfer limits imposed by the provider.  Hit your limit and your service gets interrupted just before you send off that monthly report.  How can you tell when you're close to reaching your limit?  How can you tell what kind of download speed you're really getting, as opposed to the one advertised in the local language of your choice.

image BitMeter is a little application that will track both your connection speed and your data consumption over hours, days and months.  It will help you verify your up/download speeds AND monitor your transfer limits.

It's a free, handy tool for keeping track of your usage.

via jkOnTheRun

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Document collaboration in "Plain English"

Lee Lefever has created another of his wonderful explanations of technology "in plain English."  This one is about using Google Docs to  collaborate between groups of people.  (I've written about Google Docs a number of times before including here, and here.)

While sometimes it's difficult to help people to understand the power inherent in collaborative authoring.  Lefever does a great job.

There are a couple of limitations with Google Docs that you should be aware of. First, documents with complex formatting do not render well.  I've had this problem in two cases.  The first is with a document in large A3  (roughly 11x13) format that contains our team's strategic plan.  The document contains a large number of cells that just don't reproduce at all in Docs; it's unusable.  The second case was a learning contract I was working on with an intern.  It was a normal multi-page document that had a lot of spacing and tabs in it.  It didn't render well either, though it worked fine in Zoho (which I've written about here).

The third thing to keep in mind is that it obviously assumes that you have an Internet connection.  That's not a given where many of us work.  At the same time, if you regularly work on documents with teammates who live far from you (as in another continent) Google Docs and/or Zoho Writer are great tools.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

OneNote Printer disappearing with 09 Sept08 Windows Update

OneNote's "send to OneNote" printer driver has an annoying tendency to disappear without warning.  The problem is that I use it far more often than my physical printer.

Apparently a the 9-Sept-08 Windows Update caused more a wholesale disappearances of the driver.  See the post at Daniel Escapa's OneNote Blog.  One commenter, Rainald Taesler, points out that this has been an ongoing problem since the program's launch and nobody at the ON team seems to be paying attention.  Go get 'm Rainald.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Travel Tips: New TSA Laptop bag rules

Starting today the Transportation Safety Administration is adopting new rules for traveling with laptops.  For years we've had to take them out of our carry on for separate x-ray.  I've still had to turn it on in some places top prove it actually was a functioning laptop.

These below types of laptop bags will allow you to put your laptop through the the x-ray device without removing it.  These bags allow the laptop to lay flat without zippers, snaps and other metal objects between the laptop and the x-ray.


These types of bags are no goes...which is a particular bummer for me, as I travel with a backpack.


You can find more information on the TSA site here.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Skype 3.8 for Windows goes public with audio improvements

Our favorite, free communications program just got a little better.

The main improvements can be found under the hood of the audio engine. In the real world, this translates to significantly reduced background noise, less delay, fewer call drops, and fewer cut-outs. And if you change your headset, headphones or microphone, there's no need to mess around with sound settings. 3.8 takes care of it behind the scenes.

One technologically minor but user-friendly change is this: by default, we've hidden the users profile image in incoming authorization requests. Some people have been using offensive images, so we decided to put them behind a veil. You can still see the hidden avatar if you click on it.

The release also includes a number of video-related bug fixes... And even if you're happy with an older version of Skype, we recommend upgrading to the latest.

You can find more, including the download link, here.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Record setting skyscraper to go up in Prishtina

A four hundred million euro skyscraper is being built in the capital of Kosovo, Prishtina.  Hmm

The complex is located on Bill Clinton Boulevard close to the center of Prishtina on an area of 26,000 m2. With a floor space of 285,000 m2, the complex consists of 100 luxury apartments, a 165 m 42-story-high high-end office tower, the highest in the Balkans, a shopping center, a hotel and six level subterranean garages.

Err...don't get me wrong.  I'm all for skyscrapers and everything, but what kind of generator do you need for a 42 story building when there's not enough electricity as it is?

via New Kosova Report