by Craig Timberg and Ellen Nakashima
July 25, 2012
Skype, the online phone service long favored by political dissidents,
criminals and others eager to communicate beyond the reach of governments,
has expanded its cooperation with law enforcement authorities to make online
chats and other user information available to police, said industry and
government officials familiar with the changes.
Surveillance of the audio and video feeds remains impractical - even when
courts issue warrants, say industry officials with direct knowledge of the
matter. But that barrier could eventually vanish as Skype becomes one of the
world’s most popular forms of telecommunication.
The changes to online chats, which are written messages conveyed almost
instantaneously between users, result in part from technical upgrades to
Skype that were instituted to address outages and other stability issues
since Microsoft bought the company last year. Officials of the United States
and other countries have long pushed to expand their access to newer forms
of communications to resolve an issue that the FBI calls the “going dark”
Microsoft has approached the issue with,
“tremendous sensitivity and a canny
awareness of what the issues would be,” said an industry official
familiar with Microsoft’s plans, who like several people interviewed for
this story spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t
authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
The company has,
“a long track record of working successfully
with law enforcement here and internationally,” he added.
The changes, which give the authorities access
to addresses and credit card numbers, have drawn quiet applause in law
enforcement circles but hostility from many activists and analysts.
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."