Report: Skype service in China recording, censoring messages

Researchers at University of Toronto say they've uncovered "targeted surveillance" of TOM-Skype users in China and that text chats are recorded and blocked if they contain certain words.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
2 min read

TOM-Skype, eBay's joint venture in China, is recording customer text chats and censoring them if they contain certain keywords related to topics the government deems objectionable, according to a report released on Wednesday (PDF) by researchers in Canada.

"TOM-Skype is censoring and logging text chat messages that contain specific, sensitive keywords and may be engaged in more targeted surveillance," the report concludes. "What is clear is that TOM-Skype is engaging in extensive surveillance with seemingly little regard for the security and privacy of Skype users. This is in direct contradiction of Skype's public statements regarding their policies in China."

The keywords that trigger action include words related to Taiwanese independence, the banned religious group Falun Gong, and political opposition to the Chinese Communist Party, says the report from the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.

The service also routinely logs and captures millions of records that include personal information and contact details for any text chat and voice calls placed to TOM-Skype users, including calls from Skype users, the researchers found.

Not only is the data collection suspect, but there are inadequate safeguards to protect the privacy of the TOM-Skype users, according to the report. The records and information needed to decrypt the log files are kept on servers that are accessible by the public.

"This is the worst nightmares of the conspiracy theorists around surveillance coming true," Ronald J. Deibert, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, told The New York Times. "It's X-Files without the aliens."

Representatives from eBay did not immediately respond to e-mails seeking comment on the report.