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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After Google found these unauthorized certificates, both Google and Firefox revoked its trust in CNNIC a few days later, a development we at GreatFire.org have adovacting for since 2013. Apple and Microsoft on the other hand, did not revoke their trust in CNNIC, nor did they make any announcements regarding the security compromise.

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