Skype Rebellion Met with High-Tech Listening

Skype was the method of choice for secure communications among anti-government organizers in Egypt during this past winter’s uprising, believing that Skype “cannot be penetrated online by any security device.”

Government Listening

However it turns out the protestors’ feelings of privacy were misplaced and Egypt’s security service was indeed listening in on their Skype conversations.

In an ironic twist, Egypt’s “Electronic Penetration Department” issued an internal memo which actually bragged that it had intercepted one such conversation in which the dissidents were actually discussing the non-penetrability of Skype to unwelcome ears.

Skype is Used by Millions All Over the World

Skype is a familiar internet tool used by millions of people throughout the world to make inexpensive, and often free, international phone calls over the internet. Microsoft is about to purchase Skype for $8.5 billion, and Skype, headquartered in Luxembourg, has also become a valuable tool for dissidents organizing revolutions around the globe. The reason for Skype’s popularity? It is known to have powerful encryption technology built in which easily evades traditional wiretaps.

Egyptian dissidents are not the only ones using Skype. All over the Middle East and North African region Skype has been used for video calls and conferences, ordinary phone calls, instant messages and even exchange of files. Anti-government leaders in Iran relied on Skype to plot strategy as well as to organize their February protest. US State Department cables release on WikiLeaks attest to the fact that activists in Saudi Arabia and Vietnam are also enamored with Skype.

Skype Not as Secure as Once Believed

But the love affair has taken a bad beating. After the successful toppling of the Egyptian government and its leader Hosni Mubarak in March, several demonstrators entered the headquarters of Amn Al Dowla, the state’s security agency, where they discovered that secret memo mentioned above gloating over the agency’s ability to intercept messages sent over Skype. One activist, Basem Fathi claims that he found files describing his personal life, including trips he took to the beach and about his girlfriends, which he believes were taken from intercepted e-mails and phone calls.

“I believe that they were collecting every little detail they were hearing from our mouths and putting them in a file,” he says.

Spyware is Listening

It turns out there are some companies based in the US and elsewhere that are designing tools which can be used to either block or listen in on Skype calls. The tools use “spyware” which is capable of intercepting the audio stream and bypassing completely Skype’s encryption. Egyptian documents attest to the fact that Egypt’s spy service tried FinSpy last year, one such spyware product.

Skype’s chief information security officer, Adrian Asher, explained that it is impossible to expect his company to prevent these technologies from compromising the service which Skype delivers:

“Can we control [spyware] taking an audio stream off the speakers or the microphone? No, there is nothing we can do.”