Microsoft and Skype may represent a match made in mobile heaven but they’ve been in the news for all the wrong reasons of late. Skype outages have become a norm rather than an exception. Skype protocol has been cracked through reverse engineering and published as an open source project.
And now a newly patented Microsoft technology called ‘Legal Intercept‘ that would allow the company to secretly intercept, monitor and record Skype calls is stoking privacy concerns.
The technology would allow Microsoft to silently record communications on VoIP networks such as Skype. While some believe it’s no reason to panic, others believe it gives Microsoft or government officials a license to secretly intercept, monitor and record Skype calls while they are doing the unmentionable.
Though the patent was filed well before Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype, it mentions Skype explicitly as an example application for this technology. Microsoft defends itself by claiming that such technology has existed since a long time for traditional calls, but it does not work with VoIP. The patent describes recording agents that can be placed in several hardware devices as well as software modules that logically and/or physically sits between the call server and the network. The patent was granted last week.
Clearly, the implications of the technology would be severe, especially in the enterprise world. So far, Skype has resisted CALEA (Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act) compliance which would make it suitable to be used for surveillance purposes by federal law enforcement agencies. The ‘protocol’ has been Skype’s best kept secret till date and I personally believe it’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’ of the modern web. Given a choice, I believe the Skype management would oppose the idea of eavesdropping on calls. However, now that the Redmond-giant is calling the shots, expect the unexpected.
Microsoft says that ‘Legal Intercept’ can be used by the US government or “one of its agencies”. If further mentions that this technology would require obtaining “appropriate legal permission”, which might not be that difficult for a government to acquire. The technology can record any kind of voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) communications. “VoIP may include audio messages transmitted via gaming systems, instant messaging protocols that transmit audio, Skype and Skype-like applications, meeting software, video conferencing software, and the like,” Microsoft said in the filing.
From a broader perspective, it implies that Microsoft may emerge as the sole provider of surveillance for VoIP phones. As BusinessInsider right points out, the concern isn’t limited to government spying. The Redmond giant can build a whole new business model by monitoring conversations and using data-mining techniques, determine which users are most likely to buy certain products. This info could then be sold to telemarketers or used in-house by Microsoft to serve targeted advertisements. Or else, Microsoft can bundle ‘Legal Intercept’ with Lync and Skype in tow to create a new offering for government and corporate clients.
The possibilities are endless and with Microsoft, you never know what’s coming next. Microsoft declined to comment about whether it was building any commercial products based on the patent.