Citizen Lab, a research group based at the University of Toronto, claims to have found a database of information sent through Skype, consisting of thousands of politically sensitive words which had been blocked by China. Along with stored messages, the database also revealed personal data of Skype users.
The Canadian researchers found over 150,000 messages, which had been saved on the system after being sent through Skype’s modes of telephone and text messaging. “Democracy” and “Tibet” are examples of sensitive words found in some of these stored messages. Some also made reference to Falun Gong, a banned spiritual movement.
Personal data on Skype’s users also existed within the surveillance system. According to Citizen Lab, when entering one username into the database, it was possible to view all the people who had contact with this one user, whether those in contact had acted as a sender of messages or a recipient.
In their report entitled “Breaching Trust”, Citizen Lab continued to explain this lack of privacy; "These text messages, along with millions of records containing personal information, are stored on insecure publicly accessible web servers."
Skype, run as Tom-Skype in China, exists as a joint venture between eBay and TOM-Online, a private Chinese Internet company. Although Skype had always been open about its Chinese partners’ monitoring of information, it did share concern of breaches in the site’s security.
Citizen Lab went on to describe Tom as clearly "engaging in extensive surveillance with seemingly little regard for the security and privacy of Skype users".
According to Josh Silverman, Skype President, China’s surveillance was “common knowledge” and Tom Online “established procedures to meet local laws and regulations” including “the requirement to monitor and block instant messages containing certain words deemed offensive by the Chinese authorities.”
Silverman also explained that Tom Online's policy previously included blocking specific messages and then deleting them. He said he would be investigating why the allowance came in for the company to store those messages, rather than to dispose of them.