Tom Skype is dead. Long live Microsoft surveillance.

There is a special version of Skype for China which monitors user conversations and reports flagged conversations automatically. We wrote an extensive blog post last year on this subject. Since Skype launched its “partnership” with TOM, it has been nearly impossible to download the original (international) version of Skype as skype.com and all related domains are redirected to skype.tom.com, the Chinese partner's website. Microsoft intentionally redirected Chinese users so that they would download a different program, one which looks almost the same as Skype but opens up a user’s communications to surveillance by the Chinese state.

Furthermore, the user experience on the TOM Skype web page is similar to the Skype web page which means that users will unknowingly download TOM Skype and therefore have their conversations and messages monitored and even automatically uploaded to servers in China.

We signed an open letter to Skype, where we asked Microsoft to publicly share what knowledge they have of the surveillance and censorship capabilities that users may be subject to in TOM Skype. Microsoft released its first transparency report after the letter but we believe the data request only included the official Skype client and does not include TOM Skype. After all, sensitive conversations on TOM Skype are automatically uploaded to servers in China and our guess is even Microsoft does not know how many users are affected in this way. Furthermore, in the transparency report, Microsoft did not mention TOM Skype nor the surveillance nature of the product.

On November 7, TOM announced that Microsoft will take over Skype and Microsoft stopped redirecting skype.com to skype.tom.com. As a result, Chinese users can download the original version of Skype. However, existing TOM Skype users are still subject to surveillance without their knowledge. Microsoft has since publicly stated that while their partnership with TOM has ended, they will be announcing details of a new joint venture partnership so that they can continue to “meet obligations under local law”.

Given these changes, we believe the following questions should be addressed directly by Microsoft:

  1. What happens to the text messages, along with millions of records containing personal information stored on Chinese servers now that the partnership with TOM has ended?
  2. Will Microsoft notify all TOM Skype users that their conversations have been monitored and that their chat history with personal information has been uploaded without their knowledge?
  3. Will Microsoft notify all TOM Skype users to suggest that they update their Skype to the original version of Skype immediately, before a new joint venture partnership is launched?
  4. With your new joint venture partner, will Microsoft make another special Chinese version of Skype? Will it have more or less surveillance capacity compared to the TOM version? Compared to the ‘global’ version?
  5. Microsoft has previously noted:  “TOM Online provides access to Skype for Chinese customers, using a modified version that follows Chinese regulations, called TOM Skype”. Microsoft: can you please release the planned surveillance policy for Chinese users so that everybody can know how your company “follows Chinese regulations”? Please also reference the specific “Chinese regulations” that you plan on following.
  6. Skype even has a special Chinese version in the App Store. The standard international version for iOS called “Skype for iPhone” is not available in the China App Store. But a special Chinese version called “Skype” is available only in the China App Store. Chinese iPhone users can only download the special version. Microsoft, when do you plan on making the international version of the app available in the China App Store?

We contacted Skype’s Luxembourg headquarters about this story but had not received a response when this story went to press. As with our previous stories, we would be happy to publish Skype’s response on our web site.

Illustrated History of TOM Skype

Here's how Microsoft worked its deception with TOM Skype for users in China, including those who wanted to download an English language version of Skype. This information originally appeared in our earlier blog post about Skype in China.

Downloading

To download Skype, you'd probably enter skype.com in your browser and look for a download link. If you are in China, however, when you go to skype.com, you used to be automatically redirected to http://skype.tom.com. Skype did not ask if you wanted to be redirected. They also did not inform you of the difference between the regular Skype and the Tom Online version. The websites look very similar. Skype and Microsoft are actively misleading users into thinking that they are using the regular version of Skype. We suspect this deception will continue with the new joint venture partner.

Regular Skype Tom Skype (English) Tom Skype (Chinese)

Installing

The English version of Tom Skype looks exactly the same as the regular version while installing. The Chinese version is based on an earlier version of Skype and looks somewhat different. (Click on any screenshot to see the full version.)

Regular Skype Tom Skype (English) Tom Skype (Chinese)

Logging in

The login screens are very similar, misleading users into thinking that they are using the regular version of Skype.

Regular Skype Tom Skype (English) Tom Skype (Chinese)

About

If you click to the About window in the Skype client, you can find out if you are running the Tom Online version of Skype or not. If you are, then your communications (voice and chat) are passing through Chinese servers and are made available to authorities upon request.

Regular Skype Tom Skype (English) Tom Skype (Chinese)

 

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Mon, Jun 10, 2019

Apple Censoring Tibetan Information in China

Apple has a long history of censorship when it comes to information about Tibet. In 2009, it was revealed that several apps related to the Dalai Lama were not available in the China App Store. The developers of these apps were not notified that their apps were removed. When confronted with these instances of censorship, an Apple spokesperson simply said that the company “continues to comply with local laws”.

In December, 2017, at a conference in China, when asked about working with the Chinese authorities to censor the Apple App Store, Tim Cook proclaimed:

"Your choice is: do you participate, or do you stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be. And my own view very strongly is you show up and you participate, you get in the arena because nothing ever changes from the sideline."

In the ten years since Apple was first criticized for working with the Chinese authorities to silence already marginalized voices, what has changed? Apple continues to strictly follow the censorship orders of the Chinese authorities. When does Tim Cook expect that his company will help to bring about positive change in China?

Based on data generated from https://applecensorship.com, Apple has now censored 29 popular Tibetan mobile applications in the China App Store. Tibetan-themed apps dealing with news, religious study, tourism, and even games are being censored by Apple. A full list of the censored apps appear below.

Thu, Jun 06, 2019

Report Shines Spotlight on Apple’s Censorship Practices in China

The newest Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index makes recommendations on what companies and governments need to do in order to improve the protection of internet users’ human rights around the world. Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) works to promote freedom of expression and privacy on the internet by creating global standards and incentives for companies to respect and protect users’ rights.

In their 2019 Accountability Index, RDR looks at the policies of 24 of the world’s most important internet companies in respect to freedom of expression and privacy and highlights the companies that have made improvements and those companies that need to do more. RDR notes that:

Insufficient transparency makes it easier for private parties, governments, and companies themselves to abuse their power over online speech and avoid accountability.

In particular, the report highlights how Apple has abused their power over online speech, and notes instances of this in China. According to the report, Apple has not disclosed data around the content that it removes from its App Store when faced with requests from the government authorities.

While [Apple] disclosed data about government requests to restrict accounts, it disclosed no data about content removal requests, such as requests to remove apps from its App Store. Apple revealed little about policies and practices affecting freedom of expression, scoring below all other U.S. companies in this category.

The report makes intelligent and sensible recommendations for governments. However, the recommendations also highlight how difficult it is to have these discussions with governments like China’s.

Thu, Nov 30, 2017

About those 674 apps that Apple censored in China

Apple opened the door on its censorship practices in China - but just a crack.

Tue, May 23, 2017

Is China establishing cyber sovereignty in the United States?

Last week Twitter came under attack from a DDoS attack orchestrated by the Chinese authorities. While such attacks are not uncommon for websites like Twitter, this one proved unusual. While the Chinese authorities use the Great Firewall to block harmful content from reaching its citizens, it now uses DDoS attacks to take down content that appears on websites beyond its borders. For the Chinese authorities, it is not simply good enough to “protect” the interests of Chinese citizens at home - in their view of cyber sovereignty, any content that might harm China’s interests must be removed, regardless of where the website is located.

And so last week the Chinese authorities determined that Twitter was the target. In particular, the authorities targeted the Twitter account for Guo Wengui (https://twitter.com/KwokMiles), the rebel billionaire who is slowly leaking information about corrupt Chinese government officials via his Twitter account and through his YouTube videos. Guo appeared to ramp up his whistle-blowing efforts last week and the Chinese authorities, in turn, ramped up theirs.

via https://twitter.com/KwokMiles/status/863689935798374401

Mon, Dec 12, 2016

China is the obstacle to Google’s plan to end internet censorship

It’s been three years since Eric Schmidt proclaimed that Google would chart a course to ending online censorship within ten years. Now is a great time to check on Google’s progress, reassess the landscape, benchmark Google’s efforts against others who share the same goal, postulate on the China strategy and offer suggestions on how they might effectively move forward.

flowers on google china plaque

Flowers left outside Google China’s headquarters after its announcement it might leave the country in 2010. Photo: Wikicommons.

What has Google accomplished since November 2013?

The first thing they have accomplished is an entire rebranding of both Google (now Alphabet) and Google Ideas (now Jigsaw). Throughout this blog post, reference is made to both new and old company names.

Google has started to develop two main tools which they believe can help in the fight against censorship. Jigsaw’s DDoS protection service, Project Shield, is effectively preventing censorship-inspired DDoS attacks and recently helped to repel an attack on Brian Krebs’ blog. The service is similar to other anti-DDoS services developed by internet freedom champions and for-profit services like Cloudflare.

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To download Skype, you'd probably enter skype.com in your browser and look for a download link. If you are in China, however,
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