There are certain things that you shouldn’t say on Skype in China, if you want to remain uncensored. Things like “Jon Huntsman,” “BBC News” or, somewhat unexpectedly, “Google Flowers.” Those phrases – along with some that seem more obviously controversial, such as “Amnesty International,” “Human Rights Watch,” and “Jasmine Revolution” – are more than 2,000 words or phrases that have been discovered to trigger internal alerts by the Chinese business partner jointly responsible for the Microsoft-owned messaging system in China, with some being ruled so outrageous that the messages will never make it to their intended recipients.
The person who discovered this online surveillance is 27-year old computer science graduate student Jeffrey Knockel, who was recently unmasked in a Bloomberg Businessweek profile. Tasked by a professor at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, with finding out just how conversations on Skype were being monitored, Knockel proceeded to do that very thing not just once, but multiple times over a two-year period, building up what appears to be an accurate take on just how Internet communication in China is monitored and censored.
According to Knockel, the monitoring of conversations begins via a feature within the Skype – or TOM-Skype,as it’s called in China – software itself. That feature searches messages for specific pre-set trigger phrases or words; if found, the software then copies the offending message and sends a copy, accompanied by the account username and time and date of the message itself, to a TOM-Skype server.
The eavesdropping feature isn’t limited to those using the specific TOM-Skype version of the software, Knockel says. Instead, all sides of any conversation where one of the participants is using that version are being monitored. “If you are talking to someone using TOM-Skype, you yourself are being surveilled,” he told Businessweek.
What happens to the information after it arrives at the TOM-Skype server remains an open question. Knockel wasn’t able to track the information beyond that, and unsurprisingly, the company refuses to comment on the matter.But there is concern amongst many that the information is shared with government agencies.
In a statement responding to earlier concerns of monitoring or censorship in China, Microsoft said that, “As majority partner in the joint venture, TOM has established procedures to meet its obligations under local laws.” The company added that Skype’s overall mission “is to break down barriers to communications and enable conversations worldwide.”
Knockel is unumpressed. “I would hope for more [from Microsoft],” he said. “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.”