A group of Canadian researchers including some Canadian human-rights activists and computer security researchers have caught hold of a huge surveillance system in China that monitors and archives text-chat messages based upon some search criteria. The researchers have found that the joint venture of eBay owned Skype and TOM Online, named TOM-Skype, which provides Skype client in Chinese, monitors and censor text messages that has any information about political issues of china. Nart Villenveuve of the University of Toronto Citizen Lab released a 16-page report named “Breaching Trust,” explaining about the incident.
The full text chat messages sent through the Skype chat client are regularly scanned for sensitive keywords relating to the government and if found, these messages with the personal details of the sender are stored on a insecure publicly-accessible server breaching the security principles. That’s how the researchers were able to download and analyze copies of the surveillance data because the Chinese computers were improperly configured, leaving them accessible.
The search criteria based upon which the messages are monitored include words related to the religious group Falun Gong, Taiwan independence and the Chinese Communist Party. It includes not only words like democracy, but also earthquake and milk powder. (Chinese officials are facing criticism over the handling of earthquake relief and chemicals tainting milk powder.)
When questioned about the monitoring of chat messages of users and the extent of support TOM-Skype was extending to the Chinese government, Skype says, “As part of the joint venture, TOM provides guidance to Skype about how to co-operate with local laws and regulations in China. In every country we operate in, we always work with local authorities to follow local laws and best practice.”
“TOM operates a text filter in TOM-Skype. The filter operates solely on text chats. The filter has a list of words which will not be displayed in Skype chats. The text filter operates on the chat message content before it is encrypted for transmission, or after it has been decrypted on the receiver side. If the message is found unsuitable for displaying, it is simply discarded and not displayed or transmitted anywhere.”
Skype also mentioned that:
- The text filter does not affect in any way the security and encryption mechanisms of Skype.
- Full end-to-end security is preserved and there is no compromise of people’s privacy.
- Calls, chats and all other forms of communication on Skype continue to be encrypted and secure.
- There is absolutely no filtering on voice communications.