Many of you by now have been made aware of the list of keywords that could put some Chinese users at risk of being monitored by government officials if they are typed into TOM-Skype, a version of Skype used in China with over 96 million users that enables eavesdropping onto otherwise private conversations. The list contains thousands of keywords, some of which are seemingly harmless, but may be used for code phrases.
University of New Mexico computer-science graduate Jeffrey Knockel had stumbled across the keywords, which was first revealed via Bloomberg Businessweek, when Knockel found a way to bypass encryption used by TOM-Skype and uncovered that secret list.
If a user types one of the offending phrases into the Skype text chat, it triggers an alert and then proceeds to send a copy of the message, the user who sent it, and when, to a centralized computer server. The user is then flagged and monitored.
Knockel updates the keyword list daily, and some of the words — such as “Amnesty International” and “Tiananmen” — are political, but also contain additional adult-oriented terms and some of those aforementioned “out there” terms such as “ancient horse recipe” and “throwing eggs.”
It’s things like this that have caused Skype to undergo scrutiny by privacy experts, and recently prompted an open letter that called on the company to release a “regularly updated Transparency Report” and, among other things, publish information about TOM-Skype and its spying and content-blocking capabilities.
While Skype has continued to claim that it’s committed to promoting “effective public policies that help protect people’s online safety and privacy,” the keyword monitoring of TOM-Skype has called those statements into question. Maintaining personal privacy in a VoIP-connected world is incredibly important, and these practices seem to contradict those privacy policies put in place to protect the user. Which means it’s ultimately the end user who suffers from the lack of transparency.