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Microsoft on the wrong side of privacy controversy in China

Evidence suggesting that Chinese Skype users' conversations are being monitored has surfaced, and Microsoft has done little about it.

The Internet has been a wonderfully subversive tool for fighting authoritarian governments. It was integral to Egypt's revolution, it played a part in Iran's almost-but-not-quite revolts in 2009, and it is currently being used by Syrian rebels.

And China, the world's largest authoritarian government, knows this. A graduate student has uncovered the encryption that Skype uses to hide what information it's gathering from Chinese citizens, according to Bloomberg Business Week.

Jeffrey Knockel, a computer science graduate student at the University of New Mexico, told BBW he's not interested in Chinese politics and doesn’t even speak the language; he just wanted a challenge. So he set out to break the encryption in the special Chinese version of Skype, called TOM-Skype.

TOM-Skype is a joint venture between Microsoft and Tom Online, a Chinese wireless Internet company. No doubt it makes sense to work with a local vendor, especially with such a challenging language barrier.

Knockel only looked into TOM-Skype for chats, not voice calls. From there, Knockel uncovered a keyword list sent to every Skype user's machine, which Skype then monitors for matches against that list. The keywords include "Amnesty International," "protest," "Tiananmen" and curiously, "Jon Huntsman." Huntsman is a former ambassador to China and U.S. presidential candidate.

Any matches and that message, along with the account's username, time and date of transmission, and whether the message was sent or received by the user, are sent to the TOM servers. In some cases, the message is also blocked from being sent.

Knockel wasn't able to find out what happened to the information after it's sent to the servers. But it is possible that it's then sent along to spy agencies and police departments.

Microsoft has been under pressure for some time regarding the issue of spying in Skype. In January, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and other privacy groups asked Microsoft to release a transparency report detailing what kind of Skype information is being sent to third parties, including governments. Microsoft has yet to do so.

Microsoft sent me, and pretty much everyone else covering this, the same statement:

In China, the Skype software is made available through a joint venture with TOM Online. As majority partner in the joint venture, TOM has established procedures to meet its obligations under local laws. Even as a minority partner we understand we also have responsibilities. We are working with TOM Online to identify and adopt appropriate changes that can be made to address the issues raised. We understand the passion our users have for Skype and are committed to taking concrete steps to further increase transparency and accountability.

The issue, then, is obvious: we would not tolerate such behavior by Microsoft within the United States. Why should we give them a pass to engage in this behavior in China? Because the U.S. and European markets are at a standstill and China is growing? Because it's the world's largest market, we should abandon all principals and let them engage in behavior we would never tolerate at home?

I'm routinely astounded that for all the liberalism of this industry, it will look the other way for the sake of gaining the Chinese market. The list of human rights abuses in China is long and growing, and not just from the government. Foxconn has been the subject of countless investigations and nothing seems to change, nor will it if we want our iPads to stay at a low price.

In the '70s and '80s, after American chemical companies were forbidden from polluting this country into an uninhabitable state, they went into foreign, often third-world nations and polluted there instead. American activists had to chase them around the world to stop them from engaging in behavior that would never be tolerated here.

It seems history will have to repeat itself.

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