Microsoft purchased Skype for $8.5 billion back in May but a patent it filed dating back to 2009 may have hinted in it’s interest in the VOIP giant. The patent Microsoft seeks to own is for a technology called “Legal Intercept” that would allow them to secretly intercept, monitor and record Skype calls. The patent is described as:
Aspects of the subject matter described herein relate to silently recording communications. In aspects, data associated with a request to establish a communication is modified to cause the communication to be established via a path that includes a recording agent.
Modification may include, for example, adding, changing, and/or deleting data within the data. The data as modified is then passed to a protocol entity that uses the data to establish a communication session. Because of the way in which the data has been modified, the protocol entity selects a path that includes the recording agent. The recording agent is then able to silently record the communication.
It’s possible that with this patent Microsoft may be looking to make Skype more corporate/business friendly. The patent would make Skype CALEA (Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act) compliant. CALEA requires telecommunications carriers and makers of communications equipment to modify and design their equipment, facilities, and services to ensure that they have built-in surveillance options for federal law enforcement agencies e.g. wire tapping. While all major telecommunication companies are required to oblige this law it’s still unknown if Skype has had this capability all along. Speculation rises from Skype agreeing to monitoring calls for the Chinese government and the Austrian military claiming it can actually bug Skype calls. While some claims are unsubstantiated Skype hasn’t helped by keeping silent on the matter and on just how it’s security algorithms are used, it’s lack of transparency certainly doesn’t help either.
The patent also describes that the recording agent would be applied to any, “form of packet-based communication that may be used to transmit audio over a wireless and/or wired network.” The description leaves the possibility open for “Legal Intercept” to be leveraged not only on Skype but on audio communication transmitted over it’s gaming system (Xbox 360) as well as it’s meeting and video conferencing software (Live meeting and Lync).
Microsoft, though it refuses to comment on the patent, defends itself by claiming that such technology has existed long before for traditional calls but not for VoIP. While the bigger the company, the more they patent is certainly true, not all that is patented sees the light of day in released products. Conspiracy theories aside the fact is that with this patent Microsoft can build a new business model by monitoring conversations and/or licensing the patented technology out to others to use. There’s also data-mining to consider, it can use to determine which users are most likely to buy certain products and what advertisements would be best targeted for those users. This info could then be sold to ad agencies or telemarketers.
While all this is said the patent hasn’t been approved yet, until it is it’s all speculation on how Microsoft intends to use it or with what products. My two cents on the matter; purposely building backdoors into programs or applications only invite exploits, whether “this” specific backdoor publishes an invitation to exploit or not is unknown we’ll just have to wait and see.
The Patent can be seen here in it’s entirety Legal Intercept