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The Kid, the F-Bomb, and the Chinese Skype Code

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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For extra credit:

For extra credit: Check a current US Skype client to see if similar functionality is present.

(Of course, in the US it might be present but only enabled on those they want to snoop, perhaps after something designed to look like due process ("lawful intercept"), rather than being enabled by default.)

= = = =
"Obama’s Economists: ‘Stimulus’ Has Cost $278,000 per Job."

That means: For each job "created or saved" about five were destroyed.

Skype is not very popular in China

Most Skype-like communication is done with QQ in China.

It is also possible to download the english language version
of skype from FileHippo or the equivalent rather than use the awful Tom version of skype.

Actually the Tom version of skype is so bad that most Chinese dont want to use it.

2008. That's pre-Microsoft.

The Microsoft acquisition put the nails in the coffin of dead privacy on skype.

Most of those who think so actually don't and most of those who think sew actually rip.

Actually, I think I remember

Actually, I think I remember reading that the government paid microsoft $4 billion to figure out how to monitor skype in the US because they currently cant do it.

To climb the mountain, you must believe you can.

Brilliant !!!!!!!!

Great Job....Kudo's.....

Can anyone recommend an alternative to skype to block the Multinational surveilenace apparatus ?


"Take hold of the future or the future will take hold of you." -- Patrick Dixon

The NSA has been doing this with telephones since ECHELON....

just imagine how far advanced they are now, and try to think of a single method of a communication they aren't able to eavesdrop in on.

Aside from writing messages down on paper, or talking away from devices with the ability to transmit audio, there isn't much that anyone could do to evade the NSA.

Although, with so much traffic to monitor, the more advanced techniques are probably reserved for specific targets.

But, it would be a safe bet to say all telephone conversations, texts, and emails are filtered through word recognition software.

P.S. Hello, Fort Meade!

Check out the Laissez-Faire Journal at LFJournal.com

"The State is a gang of thieves writ large." - Murray Rothbard

Good point...but

They haven't thought of everything yet....nor will they.


"Take hold of the future or the future will take hold of you." -- Patrick Dixon

The dam on censorship is

The dam on censorship is going to break worldwide. TPTB must be shaking in their boots.

Politicalless Mesh Networks that James Corbett talks about. Very interesting. I think I may just invented a new meme, (PMN).

Gilligan's picture

Microsoft sucks.

Wonder what they're doing to US.

Google is government.


to the kid. that's the one thing that kind of gives you hope these days. to see such bright people uncovering these things.

but it's sad that it's so unsurprising. after Room 641A, and the rest of it.. what is anymore?

Gilligan's picture

Yes, brilliant hacking!

We need guys like him on our side.

Google is government.

DJP333's picture

Fascinating story


"It’s not pessimistic, brother, because this is the blues. We are blues people. The blues aren’t pessimistic. We’re prisoners of hope but we tell the truth and the truth is dark. That’s different." ~CW

Michael Nystrom's picture

I thought so too

Glad you enjoyed it.