Once upon a time, Skype was my favorite communication tool – a robust service, an intuitive user interface, good audio quality even on patchy Internet connections, no concerns over security or privacy and competitively priced plans. Last May, it all changed when Microsoft scooped up Skype for $8.5 Billion and it’s been a downhill journey for ‘The Big Daddy of Internet Telephony’ since then.
Shortly after the deal was announced, it was alleged that Skype’s best kept secret - ‘The Protocol’ had been successfully reverse engineered. While Microsoft put its PR might behind Skype and denounced it as ‘nefarious’ reverse engineering, I believe it was a pre-cursor of things to come. More bad press followed as Microsoft patented a technology called ‘Legal Intercept‘ that could allow the company to secretly intercept, monitor and record Skype calls, thereby stoking widespread privacy concerns.
Skype was back in the news for the wrong reasons last October when security researchers claimed to have uncovered a new security flaw which could provide hackers with easy access to a Skype user’s IP address. Earlier this month, Microsoft reportedly changed Skype architecture to making the network more robust and appealing to consumers and (paying) enterprise customers. However, the hacker community has alleged that the proposed change to Skype’s architecture makes it easier to enable “lawful interception” of calls.
Though Skype has categorically denied those claims, I for one, am not convinced.
To make matters worse, Microsoft has never clarified its stance on the issue, instead it says it will “co-operate with law enforcement agencies as is legally required and technically feasible.” Either you accept it or you deny it, the dolly of law enforcement reasons (legally obtained wiretaps, for instance) seems too hard to digest. While I’m not accusing Microsoft of stealing data or listening in on my conversations for their own corporate gain, the very thought of trade secrets, business practices, or any information of a personal nature being captured without my consent, is discomforting to say the least.
Mark Gillett, chief operating officer of Skype, clarified in a blog post that the company has not altered its structural design with Microsoft’s demands, but rather admitted that all of Skype’s “supernodes” or key infrastructure nodes, have been transferred to Microsoft datacenters, and basically act as service discovery ‘oracle’ nodes without carrying voice or video data. However, his explanation doesn’t instill any confidence that Microsoft won’t use its patent power to serve as a peeping agent.
Perhaps, Microsoft should clear the air by disclosing if and how it’s using the legal intercept technology. Or even better, take a cue from others such as Google and publish transparency reports to keep our trust alive.
Dear Skype, don’t get me wrong! I still love you and always have. However, if you are going to behave as “Microsoft Skype” in future as well, I better start looking for a Plan-B.