Skype sells out to China

New study reveals an extensive filtering and surveillance program.

Published October 2, 2008 3:40PM (EDT)

It's well known that China and the Internet don't really play nicely with each other. China often takes draconian measures -- á la the Great Firewall of China -- which often end up blocking entire Web sites inexplicably for weeks on end, and sometimes even indefinitely. Over time, the Chinese Internet authorities have gotten much smarter about blocking certain pages instead of entire sites.

Further, many American companies, whether they like it or not, are facilitating Internet censorship and surveillance in China. Most famously, thanks to Yahoo's cooperation with Chinese authorities, Chinese activist Shi Tao found himself in prison because the Sunnyvale company gave up crucial details about his activities on his Yahoo e-mail account.

But Wednesday, a new study from Nart Villeneuve and the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab made a stunning revelation that the U.S.-owned and Estonia-based VoIP company Skype appears to be colluding with the Chinese government to monitor chat messages sent on the Chinese version of Skype, known as Tom-Skype.

Villeneuve and his team were able to access massive numbers of messages that were not delivered to their recipients because they contained certain key words including "earthquake," "milk powder," "democracy," "Taiwan independence" and others. In two months of studying this system, the team was able to retrieve over 166,000 messages, including messages sent from Skype users outside China to Chinese Skype users.

Villeneuve told me in an e-mail that there may be as many as a million people whose identities have been captured by this system: "I downloaded logs that had captured messages from 71,237 unique IP addresses and 44,254 unique usernames. I have not counted the usernames in the call info logs; I estimate it's over a million. The call info logs go back to August 2007, whereas the content filter logs, only to August 2008."

As if that weren't bad enough, those text-based chat messages (as opposed to voice messages) were available -- inadvertently -- on a publicly accessible Web server in China. Villeneuve was able to download the files, which were encrypted, managed to find the decryption key as well on that same server, and was startled to find a treasure-trove of personal information, including "e-mail addresses, passwords, phone numbers, package tracking numbers and bank card numbers."

But here's the most chilling part:

Our analysis suggests that the surveillance is not solely keyword-driven. Many of the captured messages contain words that are too common for extensive logging, suggesting that there may be criteria, such as specific usernames, that determine whether messages are captured by the system.

The clearly demonstrated filtering and surveillance are in direct violation of Skype's own statements from 2006. At the time, the company said in a statement that its Tom-Skype version did filter out certain words, but that those messages were simply discarded and not recorded. It's disgraceful and morally wrong that Skype allowed this to happen. But worst of all, this is a company whose Estonian roots should have provided the historical context, knowledge and experience as to what the consequences of feeding a repressive regime are.

But Skype may not be the only American company that is getting involved with China. Longtime China watcher Rebecca MacKinnon pointed out Wednesday that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales recently sat down with Cai Mingzhao, the vice director of China's State Council Information Office, and Liu Zhengrong of the Fifth Division -- China's top Internet cops.

In an e-mail, Wales confirmed the encounter to MacKinnon and described it as a "friendly meeting." He added that he looked forward to an improved relationship with the Chinese Internet authorities, but noted:

I am not cool with any censorship of Wikipedia. However, I do think it is much better for a few politically sensitive pages to be blocked than for everything to be blocked. And we will never cooperate with any blocking or censorship of neutral encyclopedic content.

MacKinnon smartly asks the question:

Will China change Wikipedia or will Wikipedia change China? Or will they both change each other? So far, Western Internet companies working in China, and engaging with Chinese regulators, have inevitably seen themselves changed by the experience. Will a non-profit grassroots citizen media organization be able to maintain a higher moral ground and get Chinese government officials to engage in a public discussion about censorship?

Given the West's bad track record vis-à-vis China, I'd bet against Wikipedia. That said, I'd love to be surprised. Your move, Jimmy.

By Cyrus Farivar

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