Got Skype? Better Learn How to Speak in Code

The goose flies at midnight.

The cake is in the oven.

Spy phrases can be fun, and you can make them mean anything. In fact, “John has a long mustache” was a real code phrase, one of many broadcast to the French resistance on the eve of the D-Day landings and all meaning the same thing: Invasion within 24 hours.

But we wouldn’t want to be forced to speak in code on a daily basis, but a recent move by Skype might have some folks rethinking that concept.

The company that is known for making video voiceover IP calling available over the Internet has recently made a major change in the way it routes calls through their system. The company is now routing calls through central servers called supernodes, instead simply facilitating calls through the usual Internet hubs. The change is rumored to have been made after being prompted by the U.S. government.

“Reportedly, Microsoft is re-engineering these supernodes to make it easier for law enforcement to monitor calls by allowing the supernodes to not only make the introduction but to actually route the voice data of the calls as well,” Tim Verry, from the website ExtremeTech, wrote recently. (Supernodes are third-party computers that act as a sort of directory service for routing calls.)

“In this way, the actual voice data would pass through the monitored servers and the call is no longer secure. It is essentially a man-in-the-middle attack, and it is made all the easier because Microsoft — who owns Skype and knows the keys used for the service’s encryption — is helping.”

Now, I’m not a conspiracy theorist who sits at home trying to hack government sites while wearing pyramid hats made out of aluminum foil, but I can see where this development might open up some interesting scenarios. For instance, let’s say you have a name that matches one of the hundreds of thousands of names on Homeland Security watchlists, kind of like all those babies and octogenarian grandmothers who wind up being detained by TSA at the airport. Now, let’s say you have Skype and relatives in a foreign country, like India or Pakistan, and you use Skype to contact them because it’s cheaper than international long distance rates. Do you think there might be a chance that your chat about how drunk Uncle Harry got at the family reunion will be misinterpreted as code, and sent to a government cryptographer for deciphering?

I’m not sure, but I doubt the parents of the infant who was detained by TSA saw it coming, either.

Any sense of privacy in the information age is a bit of a fantasy, anyway, but it does chill me a bit when I read some of these stories. Neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights specifically mentions any kind of express right to privacy, but I have to harken back to the words of Benjamin Franklin — “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

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