Skype Denies It Has Changed Privacy Policy to Aid Law Enforcement

In a blog post, a Skype executive gives a point-by-point rebuttal of media reports that the voice and video service, now part of Microsoft, changed its policies to help law enforcement snoop on calls.

Skype has issued a vigorous defense of its privacy policies and denies allegations made in some media reports that it has revised the architecture of its service to aid law-enforcement efforts to monitor calls.

"Some media stories recently have suggested Skype may be acting improperly or based on ulterior motives against our users' interests. Nothing could be more contrary to the Skype philosophy," wrote Mark Gillett, chief development and operations officer at Skype, in a blog post.

While not identifying the media outlets involved, Gillett denied reports that Skype made changes to its network architecture at the behest of Microsoft, which acquired Skype earlier this year, in order to provide law enforcement with greater access to user communications. Skype began the deployment of what he called "supernodes" even before Microsoft announced its plans to acquire Skype in 2011. The supernodes are powerful computers that act as a distributed directory of Skype users so that two Skype users can find each other. But the supernodes do not make the calls, he said.

Since the $8.5 billion acquisition, Skype has consolidated all the supernodes, which had been deployed in Skype data centers and in third-party cloud providers, such as Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), into Microsoft data centers. That's what the re-architecture was about, Gillett said, not to facilitate law-enforcement access to calls.

The issue of service-provider acquiescence to law-enforcement requests for information was raised in the wake of a New York Times report that law-enforcement agencies made 1.3 million requests for information from nine cell phone carriers in the United States in 2011. The reports were requested by U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who is a co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus in the House of Representatives.

Markey's report states that the volume of law-enforcement requests has grown at an annual rate of between 12 percent and 16 percent over the last five years. The requests were for text messages, caller location and other information. Some records were handed over after a subpoena, but others were shared in "emergency" situations where there wasn't time to get a subpoena.

Skype was not one of the service providers included in the Markey report. Nonetheless, Skype has also received law-enforcement requests and has procedures in place to respond to them, Gillett said.

"Skype has had a team of Skype employees to respond to legal demands and requests from law enforcement since 2005," he wrote. "Our position has always been that when a law-enforcement entity follows the appropriate procedures, we respond where legally required and technically feasible."

Gillett also denied media reports that with its new architecture of supernodes located in Microsoft data centers that Skype now monitors and records audio and video calls of its users. Supernodes do not make calls, he emphasized, and Skype-to-Skype calls do not go through Skype/Microsoft data centers. He also added that Skype autonomously applies encryption to Skype-to-Skype calls.

"The enhancements we have been making to our software and infrastructure have been to improve user experience and reliability. Period," Gillett wrote.