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