The Kid, the F-Bomb, and the Chinese Skype CodeSubmitted by Michael Nystrom on Sat, 03/23/2013 - 09:19
By Vernon Silver | March 08, 2013 | Bloomberg BusinessWeek
Jeffrey Knockel is an unlikely candidate to expose Skype’s role in China’s online surveillance apparatus. The 27-year-old computer science graduate student at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque doesn’t speak Chinese, let alone follow Chinese politics. “I don’t really keep up with news in China that much,” he says. What gets him going are puzzles.
So when a professor pulled Knockel aside after class two years ago and suggested a long-shot project—to figure out how the Chinese version of Microsoft’s (MSFT) Skype secretly monitors users—he hunkered down in his bedroom with his Dell (DELL) laptop. Other academics have known since 2008 that Skype tracks politically sensitive text messages on its Chinese videophone and texting service, known as TOM-Skype, a joint venture formed in 2005 with majority owner TOM Online, a Chinese wireless Internet company. Knockel, a bearded, yoga-practicing son of a retired U.S. Air Force officer, cracked the encryption cloaking Skype’s Chinese service and for the first time identified the thousands of terms—such as “Amnesty International” and “Tiananmen”—that prompt Skype in China to intercept typed messages and send copies to its computer servers in the country. Some messages are blocked altogether.
The lists shed new and harsh light on the surveillance of Internet communications in China. The words subject to monitoring in TOM-Skype’s instant messages, which Knockel updates almost daily on his university department’s website, range from references to pornography and drugs to politically sensitive terms, including “Human Rights Watch,” “Reporters Without Borders,” “BBC News,” and the locations of planned protests. (The system he traced does not involve voice calls.)
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