Skype set up secret project to enable government snooping
June 21, 2013 7 Comments
By IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
Skype, the world-famous company that provides Internet-based communications between registered users, set up a secret project five years ago to facilitate persistent requests by government agencies to listen in on users’ phone calls. The New York Times revealed the secret project, codenamed Project CHESS, on Wednesday, citing individuals with inside knowledge of the program, who asked to remain anonymous so as “to avoid trouble with the intelligence agencies”. For many years, it was believed that the US National Security Agency (NSA) and other intelligence agencies had found it impossible to intercept Skype’s instant messaging and voice traffic. This was because, like other voice-over-Internet protocol (VOIP) communications providers, Skype uses technology that converts audio signals to data, and transports them through most of the Internet infrastructure in binary, rather than audio, format. Furthermore, Skype uses very complex algorithms to encrypt its customers’ communications. The company had repeatedly pointed to the technical complexities of VOIP communications in arguing that it was often technically impossible to facilitate communications interception requests by government authorities. In 2009, rumors began to circulate in the cybersecurity community that Skype’s VOIP encryption system had been cracked. It now seems that, around that time, the company, which was then still owned by eBay, was already negotiating with the United States government in order to help intelligence agencies gain access to its users’ communications. The Times said that Skype’s Project CHESS, which was a direct outcome of these negotiations, involved “fewer than a dozen people” employed by the company. Documents provided to Britain’s Guardian newspaper by American intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden, show that Skype formalized its interception interface with the NSA in February of 2011, several months before it was acquired by Microsoft. But The Times revelation appears to show that the operational interface between Skype and the NSA began several years earlier, through Project CHESS. The paper said it contacted Microsoft executives, who were “no longer willing to affirm” past claims made by Skype that their users’ communications were shielded from interception by third parties.