Microsoft Skype accused of supporting the surveillance in China

Pierluigi Paganini March 10, 2013

In many occasion we have discussed about the consequences of monitoring activities on internet and communication channels operated by governments all over the world, in particular of the censorship and persecutions operated by authoritarian regimes.

In discussion is the technological support often provide by Western IT company in the name of business that totally ignore human right.This time I desire to discuss about the popular Skype application, today managed by Microsoft, and how its services are provided in China. The 27-year-old computer-science graduate student at the University of New Mexico, Jeffrey Knockel conducted a research on role of Skype in Chinese online surveillance system.

What is singular is that the student totally ignore Chinese language, he was supported by a his professor to discover how the Chinese version of Microsoft’ Skype secretly monitors users.

Knockel has repeatedly beaten the dynamic encryption of Skype’s Chinese service identifying  thousands of terms, such as “Tiananmen” and “Amnesty International”, that are used Chinese government to select Skype communication to intercept.  Once triggered monitor system they collect typed messages on Skype client and send copies to remote control computer in the country. The Chinese version of Skype is named TOM-Skype, it’s a modified version of Skype by TOM Group Limited, a China based media company, it uses Skype’s network and Chinese people when access to are redirect to Chinese TOM web site.


Knockel provides daily update to the list of word used for monitoring that cover various arguments from politics to crime, that’s what the researcher revealed in his presentation “Chinese Keyword Censorship of Instant Messaging Programs (and Work in Progress)” .


Knockel considers the discovery staggering because of the strong defense of right to privacy by Microsoft is in contradiction with alleged complicity in Chinese surveillance. Microsoft is a founding member of the Global Network Initiative, an association that promotes corporate responsibility in online freedom of expression.

“I would hope for more” “I would like to get a statement out of them on their social policy regarding whether they approve of what TOM-Skype is doing on surveillance.”Knockel says of Microsoft.

A Microsoft spokesperson on Knockel research commented:

“Skype’s mission is to break down barriers to communications and enable conversations worldwide,” “Skype is committed to continued improvement of end user transparency wherever our software is used.”

“in China, the Skype software is made available through a joint venture with TOM Online. As majority partner in the joint venture, TOM has established procedures to meet its obligations under local laws.”

According Knockel TOM-Skype client is very invasive application that directly scan user’s computer searching for  messages containing specific words and phrases, once found them it sends a copy to a TOM-Skype computer server. TOM-Skype uses “keyfiles”, list of encrypted keywords triggering censorship and surveillance of text chat, it has one list built in and other are downloaded.

To get the words, Knockel installed TOM-Skype onto his computer and analyzed its way to monitor victims, he noted that every time he went online its client received an updated blacklist, used as the surveillance filter, from Chinese servers.

The lists were sent encrypted so Knockel had cracked them, many of the terms used for surveillance are highly targeted and refers specific locations where a protest is going to happen. The lists are changed every time Chinese authorities searched for specific events, keywords provided include indication on specific event.

“Recent additions include phrases with the word “Ferrari,” a reference to the March 2012 car-crash death of a Communist Party leader’s son, and “723,” a reference to the July 23, 2011, date of a train crash that killed 40 people.” Knockel added.

Knockel sustained that one of the most surprising findings is that the latest improvement to to TOM-Skype sends information about both sender and recipient to the authorities, the repercussion are serious because if communication involve Skype client outside China they are also monitored:

“If you are talking to someone using TOM-Skype, you yourself are being surveilled,”

How Microsoft will respond to the accusations?

Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs – Microsoft)

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