Activists and dissidents worried about government surveillance learned long ago not to talk too freely on their home phone or mobile.
Landline and mobile systems offer repressive governments myriad ways to listen in, particularly when the systems are operated by state or state-linked companies.
But are Internet phone services -- which many regard as a safer alternative -- more secure?
Gregoire Pouget, an expert on digital security and privacy at Reporters Without Borders in Paris, says that might have been true once.
But today, he says, rights groups increasingly hear of people being imprisoned or sued based in part upon evidence from their online phone conversations.
"In Belarus and in Russia," Pouget says, "journalists told us that they have been caught with their Skype conversations."
...In an effort to alert both Skype and users to the dangers of increased surveillance, Reporters Without Borders and several other rights groups wrote an open letter to the Internet phone giant this month.
From Concerned Privacy Advocates, Internet Activists, Journalists & Other Organizations
Thursday January 24th, 2013;
Skype Division President Tony Bates Microsoft Chief
Privacy Officer Brendon Lynch
Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith
Dear Mr. Bates, Mr. Lynch and Mr. Smith,
Skype is a voice, video and chat communications platform with over 600 million users worldwide, effectively making it one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies. Many of its users rely on Skype for secure communications—whether they are activists operating in countries governed by authoritarian regimes, journalists communicating with sensitive sources, or users who wish to talk privately in confidence with business associates, family, or friends.
It is unfortunate that these users, and those who advise them on best security practices, work in the face of persistently unclear and confusing statements about the confidentiality of Skype conversations, and in particular the access that governments and other third parties have to Skype user data and communications.
We understand that the transition of ownership to Microsoft, and the corresponding shifts in jurisdiction and management, may have made some questions of lawful access, user data collection, and the degree of security of Skype communications temporarily difficult to authoritatively answer. However, we believe that from the time of the original announcement of a merger in October 2011, and on the eve of Microsoft’s integration of Skype into many of its key software and services, the time has come for Microsoft to publicly document Skype’s security and privacy practices.
We call on Skype to release a regularly updated Transparency Report that includes:
- Quantitative data regarding the release of Skype user information to third parties, disaggregated by the country of origin of the request, including the number of requests made by governments, the type of data requested, the proportion of requests with which it complied — and the basis for rejecting those requests it does not comply with.
- Specific details of all user data Microsoft and Skype currently collects, and retention policies.
- Skype’s best understanding of what user data third-parties, including network providers or potential malicious attackers, may be able to intercept or retain.
- Documentation regarding the current operational relationship between Skype with TOM Online in China and other third-party licensed users of Skype technology, including Skype’s understanding of the surveillance and censorship capabilities that users may be subject to as a result of using these alternatives.
- Skype's interpretation of its responsibilities under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), its policies related to the disclosure of call metadata in response to subpoenas and National Security Letters (NSLs), and more generally, the policies and guidelines for employees followed when Skype receives and responds to requests for user data from law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the United States and elsewhere.
Other companies, such as Google, Twitter and Sonic.net already release transparency reports detailing requests for user data by third parties twice a year. We believe that this data is vital to help us help Skype’s most vulnerable users, who rely on your software for the privacy of their communications and, in some cases, their lives.