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by Antone Gonsalves

Skype hoses down eavesdropping concerns

Jul 25, 20122 mins
Investigation and ForensicsPrivacyVideoconferencing

Privacy unaffected by architecture change, says Microsoft-owned online video chat and calling company

Skype has denied reports that recent changes to its architecture would make calls and messages easier to monitor by law enforcement.

Skype, a worldwide Internet-based voice and video calling service Microsoft acquired last year for $8.5 billion, said Tuesday the changes to its peer-to-peer infrastructure were done to improve the quality of service. 

What it did was move “supernodes” into datacenters, Skype said. Supernodes act as directories that find the right recipient for calls. In the past, a user’s computer that was capable of acting as a directory was upgraded from a node to a supernode. A node is the generic term for computers on a network.

Skype has decided that having supernodes running on dedicated servers would improve its service and make it more reliable. In 2010, Skype suffered a major outage when an update to its client software caused many of its supernodes to go offline.

[Also read Skype Security – Is the Popular VOIP Service Safe for Business?]

Other than changing the location of supernodes, Skype said the systems have the same function as before, essentially denying reports that say the changes were made to make eavesdropping by law enforcement easier.

“This has not changed the underlying nature of Skype’s peer-to-peer architecture, in which supernodes simply allow users to find one another. Calls do not pass through supernodes,” Mark Gillett, chief development and operations officer, said in an email.

“We believe this approach has immediate performance, scalability and availability benefits for the hundreds of millions of users that make up the Skype community,” he said.

Because Skype has not rerouted voice, video and messaging traffic through supernodes, nothing substantive has changed in its network in regards to privacy. “As was true before the Microsoft acquisition,” a Skype representative said in a separate email.

Skype, like all other U.S. telecoms providing real-time communications, is required to provide law enforcement with access to its network. Under federal law, police with warrants can eavesdrop on conversations. Skype encrypts voice, video and data traffic and holds the decryption keys.

Skype’s peer-to-peer network is much cheaper to use than making international calls on traditional carriers’ networks. While the overall service quality is lower, it is good enough for people calling friends and family. Skype is free between registered users.

As of January, Skype had 31 million users spending an average of 27 minutes per call, according to the statistics site Statistic Brain.