TOM-Skype Breach: Meeting the Primary Investigator

South House Devonshire PlaceThis is the first of four posts resulting from an interview with Nart Villeneuve, principle investigator of the Citizen Lab report “Breaching Trust”.

Last Tuesday afternoon I returned to a University of Toronto building I had last visited in its role as an engineering students’ residence in the mid-1960’s. Abandoned as a residence in the 1980’s, the building was restored in the late 1990’s to house the Munk Centre for International Studies, when the university’s Centre for International Studies was designated as a strategic priority for future growth. In the basement of the former Devonshire Place South House, I found the Citizen Lab, “an interdisciplinary laboratory focusing on advanced research and development at the intersection of digital media and world civic politics”.

Nart VilleneuveI spent 90 minutes with Nart Villeneuve, the PhD student and Psiphon Fellow, who was the principle investigator resulting in the Citizen Lab’s recently published “Breaching Trust: An analysis of surveillance and security practices of China’s TOM-Skype platform”. We covered a wide range of issues related to this report, from the initial contact with New York Times through to the follow up activities as a result of the report’s release. We also discussed the broader mission of the Citizen Lab and some recommendations for how Skype should address the challenge of participating in the China market while making all parties aware that their conversation activity may be tracked.

Key points about the report and the follow up activity:

  • A major issue to address in dealing with the media has been the confusion resulting because there is a need to separate out the security breach that allowed Nart to gather the data he has gathered and the functionality of the TOM-Skype servers resulting in the capture and logging of chat conversations and Skype calling activity. (There was no evidence of capturing voice calls themselves).
  • As a result of reporting this breach prior to release of the document to New York Times, the security breach itself has been closed but there is no evidence that the actual information capture activity has ceased. Nart has been checking daily to confirm that the security breach remains closed.
  • There was a period of several hours between finally establishing contact with someone at Skype who could initiate action to address the security breach and the final close down of the breach. During this time Nart observed blocking of read access to the directories but since he knew the file names he was still able to follow a reconfiguration of the web servers, removal of sensitive files, such as an encryption key, and disappearance of the log files such that they were not accessible.
  • While they have captured a significant quantity of call log data going back a year, they are being careful not to expose any of the detailed information which comprised both chat message logs and what amounts to call detail records for voice calls; more details are in the report itself. Basically they don’t want to compromise anyone individually.
  • While the log files are still under analysis, they have been encrypted while he continues to mine them for any additional information they may expose. Eventually it is his intention to destroy even these files.
  • Messages were about 40% Chinese, 60% English with a small smattering of other languages.
  • While it would be very difficult to reconstruct an entire conversation thread, as only each individual message was logged with no ready reference to other messages within the thread, they could build social graphs of conversing parties.
  • There are at least two versions of the TOM-Skype client: a normal version and a second version with additional features such as a Baidu Toolbar; however the promote.dll module in this can trigger off anti-virus scanners such as Norton.
  • Other evidence that the servers had been compromised was the discovery that the servers were hosting “pirate” movies and had the appropriate software to support Bit Torrent transfers.

Nart had three definite recommendations for Skype; we also covered the broader issue of global enterprises doing business in China. These will be covered in future posts.

Next post: The Citizen Lab: Its broader mission and findings.

Tags: Skype, Citizen Lab, Breaching Trust, TOM Online, TOM-Skype, Nart Villeneuve, Munk Centre for International Studies

About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.

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  1. TOM-Skype Breach: The Citizen Lab | Voice on the Web - February 22, 2009

    […] discussing the report itself and some of the follow up activity, we went on to talk about The Citizen Lab, its mission and its activities. From their own website […]

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