Microsoft Faces New Weighty Responsibilities as VOIP Phone Carrier

News Analysis: Now that Microsoft is on its way to becoming a telephone company, it is finding itself subject to a lot of things that a mere software company never had to deal with.

Now that Microsoft is buying Skype, new complications have cropped up that its management may never have thought of when it inked the deal a couple of months ago. While Microsoft obviously knew that it was buying a phone company, did the company's lawyers warn it that this would mean working with a whole new set of government agencies from a whole new direction?

For example, phone companies have a legal obligation to provide law enforcement with the ability to tap into conversations. While there's supposed to be a court order to do this, the phone company still has to comply. This is true around the world, which is why India was about to ban BlackBerry devices last year. It's also true in the United States, where the Department of Homeland Security andrelated agencies use wiretaps on a regular basis to keep tabs on suspected criminals and terrorists.

The ability to tap phones has been around for a long time. But the ability to tap into digital communications has been a tougher nut to crack. First, it was digital cell phone calls, and now the problems center around VOIP (voice over IP). It's hard, but not impossible, to tap a VOIP call, but it helps a lot if you have access to the same switch where the VOIP call originates or terminates.

As eWEEK's Fahmida Rashid explains,Microsoft filed a patent in 2009 for technology that would greatly simplify the process of monitoring a VOIP conversation. At the time it was filed, this patent got little attention. After all, while Microsoft had telephony products at the time, it wasn't a carrier. So if Microsoft had a need-or a warrant-that required listening in to a conversation over VOIP on its own phone system, it wouldn't have been that hard to arrange.

But that was then, and this is now. Microsoft, which is in the final stages of buying Skype, is effectively becoming a phone company. While VOIP carriers such as Skype haven't been wiretapped in the past, it was because of the technical difficulty. Once the voice information leaves the first Ethernet switch, it may be broken up into different packets being sent over different routes. Out on the open Internet, tapping such a phone conversation would have been impossible. With Microsoft's patent, apparently this is no longer the case.

While it's interesting that Microsoft came up with a way to monitor VOIP in a way that's a lot easier than trying to capture packets in midflight, one has to wonder if the Redmond Giant was planning to become a phone company all along.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...