The only surprise about the revelation of China’s Skype surveillance is the surprise itself.
Cyber-snooping is as routine in China as grimy air or toxic food additives. But that doesn’t mean it is acceptable, or even legal.
That especially applies to Skype, whose record of monitoring private communications in China was documented even prior to last week’s disclosure that backdoor in the Chinese client allows IM and SMS conversations to be recorded and stored.
Tom-Skype is a big deal in China, with 69 million users signing up to a joint venture between Skype and internet and advertising group Tom Online, owned by Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing.
Two years ago Skype founder and then-CEO Niklas Zennström told the ft.com that Skype had installed a text filter to catch key phrases like Dalai Lama and Falun Gong. “Those are the regulations,” he said.
Last year DynaWeb, a US firm that offers software to evade internet censors, noted that it was receiving reports from users who were redirected to the Tom-Skype site if they tried to download the Skype client directly from the parent site. Users should be warned “about the possibility that Tom.com’s versions have or will have more trojan capability,” DynaWeb said at the time.
Following the latest embarrassment Skype president Josh Silverman has blogged that monitoring and filtering of messages was well-known. But he was shocked – shocked! – to learn that Skype’s Chinese partner was deploying a “protocol to upload and store chat messages with certain keywords, and we are now inquiring with Tom to find out why the protocol changed.”
He said Skype had urgently raised the issue of this “security breach” with Tom and the Chinese partner had fixed it.
Which raises the question of why it was happening in the first place, and who had access to that information.
It really undermines the claim by Silverman (and his counterparts at Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco) that this monitoring is done according to local law and regulations.
It is not clear just what law is being applied here. A law that is promulgated and implemented in secrecy is not a law, but the arbitrary exercise of government power.
Nart Villeneuve of the Citizen Lab, who last week made the discovery, wrote: “These findings raise key questions. To what extent do TOM Online and Skype cooperate with the Chinese government in monitoring the communications of activists and dissidents as well as ordinary citizens?
“On what legal basis is Tom-Skype capturing and logging this volume and detail of personal user data and communication, and who has access to it?
Good questions, and ones which won’t be answered any time soon.
The development of a flourishing internet sector requires a transparent and predictable system of law. We don’t have it and China’s telecom and internet businesses are much the worse for it.