If you are in China or communicating with someone in China using Microsoft’s Skype instant messenger program there are certain “sensitive” keywords that are being monitored. That might not be so surprising, but it may be more surprising that the Skype program distributed in China has a surveillance feature built-in, triggered by these keywords. Once the sensitive phrase is typed and sent the account user name and time and date are sent with the message to Chinese Skype servers.
Microsoft is partnered with TOM Online to provide Skype to residents of China. A student from the University of New Mexico, Jeffrey Knockel, has analysed use of the program and found there is a list of sensitive words which is downloaded when the program is run, this list provides an easily updateable set of surveillance triggers for the Chinese government. The list is encrypted but Knockel knows a method to extract the sensitive keywords which he publishes on his website.
The keywords under surveillance number over a thousand in the latest update. Here’s a fully translated list. You will see a lot of mentions of QQ, which is a very popular instant messenger service in China with nearly 800 million users.
Many of the keyphrases are the obviously political like several mentioning of the Occupy movement and various political figures. There are phrases to do with drugs, poisons, weapons and ammunition that are being watched too. Porn related keywords crop up quite regularly in the list. Oddly there are a number of Ferrari references too.
The Epoch Times is on the list of surveillance triggers. This newspaper has also published an article on the new research by Jeffrey Knockel. It focuses upon Skype’s professed security and also how even if you are in a country outside China but communicating with someone in China, or have come from China and are using that version of the program you will still be under surveillance.
Skype’s FAQ on security reads as follows “Is Skype secure? Skype is as secure as we can possibly make it. When you call another person on Skype your call is very strongly encrypted, ensuring your privacy. The same is true of your shared files, chats, and video.”
Bloomberg news asked Microsoft to comment on Knockel’s findings, to which a spokesperson replied “Skype is committed to continued improvement of end user transparency wherever our software is used.” Regarding the TOM Online version of Skype distributed in China the spokesperson added “…As majority partner in the joint venture, TOM has established procedures to meet its obligations under local laws.”
The Epoch Times writes that surveillance was also present in Skype was owned by eBay. In 2008 an eBay exec asked the security issue to be looked into by TOM Online and was informed that the problem would be fixed within 24 hours.