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, Jan 26, 2015

An Open Letter to Lu Wei and the Cyberspace Administration of China

January 26, 2015

Beijing, China

 

Mr. Lu Wei

Director of the Cyberspace Administration of the People’s Republic of China 中央网络安全和信息化领导小组办公室主任

Director of the State Internet Information Office 国家互联网信息办公室主任

Deputy Director of the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party 中共中央宣传部副部长

Cyberspace Administration of China,

Floor 1, Building 1,

Software Park, Chinese Academy of Sciences,

4 South 4th Street, Zhongguancun,

Beijing, China, 100190

 

Dear Mr. Lu,

On January 22, 2015, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which is under your direct control, wrote a response to a story we published about an MITM attack on Microsoft. In the post, your colleague, Jiang Jun, labelled our accusations as "groundless" and  "unsupported speculation, a pure slanderous act by overseas anti-China forces".

We at GreatFire.org take great offense to these comments and we will refute them in this letter.

Mon, Jan 19, 2015

Outlook grim - Chinese authorities attack Microsoft

On January 17, we received reports that Microsoft’s email system, Outlook (which was merged with Hotmail in 2013), was subjected to a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack in China.

The following screenshot shows what happens when a Chinese user accesses Outlook via an email client (in this case, Ice-dove):

We have tested Outlook to verify the attack and have produced the same results. IMAP and SMTP for Outlook were under a MITM attack. Do note however that the web interfaces (https://outlook.com and https://login.live.com/ ) were not affected. The attack lasted for about a day and has now ceased.

This form of attack is especially devious because the warning messages users receive from their email clients are much less noticeable than the warning messages delivered to modern browsers (see screenshot at the end of this post for comparison).

(Sample error message from default iPhone mail client)

Fri, Jan 09, 2015

GFW upgrade fail - visitors to blocked sites redirected to porn

In the past, the Chinese authorities’ DNS poisoning system would direct Chinese internet users who were trying to access Facebook, Twitter and other blocked websites (without the use of a circumvention tool) to a set of fake IP addresses that are blocked in China or are non-existent. After waiting for some time, Chinese internet users would receive a timeout message if they were trying to access a blocked site.

However, with the new DNS poisoning system, in addition to those IP addresses used before, the Chinese authorities are using real IP addresses that actually host websites and are accessible in China. For example, https://support.dnspod.cn/Tools/tools/ shows that if a user tries to access Facebook from China, they might instead land on a random web page, e.g. http://178.62.75.99

Below is a screenshot by a Chinese user when he was trying to access our GreatFire.org website which was blocked in China. He was redirected to a goverment site in Korea. In essense, GFW is sending Chinese users to DDOS the Korea government's website.

One Chinese Internet user reported to us that when he tried to access Facebook in China, he was sent to a Russian website, unrelated to Facebook. Another user tweeted that he was redirected to an German adult site when he tried to access a website for a VPN.

某墙你这什么意思,DNS 污染返回给我一个德国工口站的 IP,满屏很黄很暴力弹弹弹(

— nil (@xierch) January 4, 2015

Wed, Dec 31, 2014

CNNIC leadership change coincides with blocking of Gmail

On December 26, 2014, in an announcement posted on their website, a new chairperson for CNNIC was directly appointed by the Cyberspace Administration of China. The announcement of this appointment coincided with the complete blocking of Gmail.

Cyberspace Administration of China (中央网信办) is chaired by Lu Wei, “China’s web doorkeeper”. Lu Wei is also the vice chair of the Central Propaganda Department, according to his official resume.

chair.png

This office is directly responsible for the blocking of Gmail and other websites including Facebook, Twitter and Google.

CNNIC is China’s certification authority and operates the country’s domain name registry. 

What are certificates used for?

Certificates are used primarily to verify the identity of a person or device, authenticate a service, or encrypt files. 

What is a certification authority (CA)?  

Tue, Dec 30, 2014

Gmail completely blocked in China

All Google products in China have been severely disrupted since June of this year and Chinese users have not been able to access Gmail via its web interface since the summer. However, email protocols such as IMAP, SMTP and POP3 had been accessible but are not anymore. These protocols are used in the default email app on iPhone, Microsoft Outlook on PC and many more email clients.

On December 26, GFW started to block large numbers of IP addresses used by Gmail. These IP addresses are used by IMAP/SMTP/POP3. Chinese users now have no way of accessing Gmail behind the GFW. Before, they could still send or receive emails via email clients even though Gmail's web interface was not accessible. 

Google's own traffic chart shows a sharp decline of Chinese traffic to Gmail. 

Below is a ping request to the Gmail SMTP server, which is completely inaccessible in China.

 

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