Microsoft Patent Will Allow Federal Eavesdropping on VOIP Services, Skype

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.

Called "Legal 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 application.

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 communications.

"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 application.

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 between users.

The 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 conversations online.

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.