Microsoft has a patent application pending for a technology that will provide a legal backdoor in communications equipment to record VOIP conversations and chat.
Microsoft has developed
technology to secretly intercept, monitor and record communications on voice
over IP networks. With Skype soon to join the Microsoft family, it's likely the
technology will play some kind of a role in the VOIP software going forward.
Intercept" in the patent application, the technology is designed to
silently record communications on VOIP networks, such as Skype, according to a
filing with the United
States Patent and Trademark Office, publicized June 28. Current products
would be modified to "cause the communication to be established via a path
that includes a recording agent," Microsoft said in its patent
There is no indication on
how soon the U.S. Patent Office might act on Microsoft's application.
Legal Intercept seems
similar to tools telecommunications companies already use to comply with the
government's wiretap and surveillance requests, which currently do not work for
"VOIP may include audio
messages transmitted via gaming systems, instant messaging protocols that
transmit audio, Skype and Skype-like applications, meeting software,
video-conferencing software and the like," Microsoft wrote in its
In the patent application,
Microsoft described how the recording agent could be placed inside a router,
call server or within the network of an organization. It can also be a software
module installed between the call server and the network. While it doesn't
specifically mention embedding the agent inside client software, it may be possible
to do so in applications such as Skype.
With this technology,
Microsoft will be able to intercept Internet communications data so that it can
be recorded and reviewed at a later time. The company acknowledged that "a
government or one of its agencies" may need to monitor communications
Assistance for Law Enforcement Act requires telecommunications carriers and
communications vendors to modify their equipment so that federal law
enforcement agencies can use them for surveillance purposes. Federal law
enforcement agencies are already trying to expand the government's powers to wiretap
Internet services in order to track and record criminal and terrorist
Although Skype was named in
the patent application, it's not clear how Microsoft plans to use Legal
Intercept with Skype. Microsoft also declined to comment on whether it is
already using the technology in any of its other products.
The application was filed in
2009, long before Microsoft's $8.5
billion Skype deal in May. The acquisition was approved earlier this month,
but has not yet closed.
It's also not clear if Skype
already has a similar backdoor mechanism to give federal law enforcement
officials access to user communications. Skype has been historically very
reticent about how its technology works, or what protocols and security
measures are in place. Skype has also refused to make its system interoperable
with other products.
The Indian government has
already indicated that it will ban Skype services unless there is some kind of
an intercept capability for law enforcement authorities, and it's not the only
country to complain about proprietary technology that makes eavesdropping
impossible. India has made similar warnings to BlackBerry
maker Research In Motion because of the inability to monitor criminals' phone
calls and chats on the enterprise-friendly and encryption-protected
smartphones. RIM faced similar BlackBerry
bans in the Middle East last year despite claims that RIM customers hold
all the communication encryption keys and that the company can't hand anything
over to law enforcement even if it wanted to.