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by Senior Editor

Skype flaw reveals users’ location, file-downloading habits

Dec 01, 20114 mins
Application SecurityData and Information SecurityMobile Security

A team of researchers has uncovered an issue that imperils Skype users' privacy by putting their location and identity up for grabs

Researchers have found a flaw in Skype, the popular Voice-over-Internet-Protocol service which allows users to make video phone calls and internet chat with their computers. The vulnerability can expose your location, identity and the content you’re downloading. Microsoft, which owns Skype, says they are working on the problem.

The issue was uncovered earlier this year by a team of researchers from Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly), MPI-SWS in Germany and INRIA in France and included Keith Ross, Stevens Le Blond, Chao Zhang, Arnaud Legout, and Walid Dabbous. The team presented the research in Berlin recently at the Internet Measurement Conference 2011 in a paper titled “I know where you are and what you are sharing.”

[Also see: Skype: Is the popular VOIP safe for business?]

The researchers found several properties of Skype that can track not only users’ locations over time, but also their peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing activity, according to a summary of the findings on the NYU-Poly web site. Earlier this year, a German researcher found a cross-site scripting flaw in Skype that could allow someone to change an account password without the user’ consent.

“Even when a user blocks callers or connects from behind a Network Address Translation (NAT) -- a common type of firewall -- it does not prevent the privacy risk,” according to a release from NYU-Poly.

The research team tracked the Skype accounts of about 20 volunteers as well as 10,000 random users over a two-week period and found that callers using VoIP systems can obtain the IP address of another user when establishing a call with that person. The caller can then use commercial geo-IP mapping services to determine the other user’s location and Internet Service Provider (ISP).

The user can also initiate a Skype call, block some packets and quickly terminate the call to obtain an unsuspecting person’s IP address without alerting them with ringing or pop-up windows. Users do not need to be on a contact list, and it can be done even when a user explicitly configures Skype to block calls from non-contacts.

[Also see: VoIP security: The basics]

The research also revealed that marketers can easily link to information such as name, age, address, profession and employer from social media sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn in order to inexpensively build profiles on a single tracked target or a database of hundreds of thousands.

“We feel the implications are very severe,” Ross told CSO. “For example, a high-school hacker, or anyone with basic programming and hacking skills, could track, for example, all the Congressmen in the United States, or the employees of a company. The attack can be used by blackmailers, stalkers, or journalists looking for a racy story about a politician.”

Skype and Microsoft Corp. were informed of the researchers’ findings and The New York Times reports that Skype is aware of the issue.

“We value the privacy of our users and are committed to making our products as secure as possible,” Adrian Asher, Skype’s chief information security officer, said in a statement. “Just as with typical Internet communications software, Skype users who are connected may be able to determine each other’s IP address. Through research and development, we will continue to make advances in this area and improvements to our software.”

Ross said until the issue has been addressed, he recommends that Skype account holders not leave their Skype application running and only have it on when in use. He also recommends screen names not be closely related to a person’s actual name.