Microsoft, the current owner of Skype internet telephone service, was recently caught listening to ordinary people’s phone conversations conducted on Skype.
The first case was reported in August 2019 when Microsoft utilized Skype’s automatic translation feature to listen to phone conversations without letting users know about it. A major concern was also how subcontractors who listened and transcribed the conversations managed the security of the audio material.
Indirectly, Microsoft admitted that the company was listening to phone calls, saying they might “analyse audio” of calls.
In January 2020, The Guardian talked to a contract worker who had listened to Skype phone calls (and Cortana assistant conversations) in China. The worker is British, lived in China and was told to listen to British English conversations recorded anywhere in the world. The remarkable thing in his story is that audio clips saved from Skype calls were available to anyone in the organization who had the password that was sent in plain text via email. In China, a concern is that anything transmitted in plain text is seen by authorities.
Again, Microsoft admitted the company is listening to conversations, but is moving tasks like this to more secure facilities outside China. Here is what Microsoft told The Guardian:
“We review short snippets of de-identified voice data from a small percentage of customers to help improve voice-enabled features, and we sometimes engage partner companies in this work. Review snippets are typically fewer than ten seconds long and no one reviewing these snippets would have access to longer conversations. We’ve always disclosed this to customers and operate to the highest privacy standards set out in laws like Europe’s GDPR.
That’s it. The damage has been done. Microsoft has destroyed the trust required to use services like Skype where private information is exchanged.
Perhaps mobile phone will be my primary voice communication tool, or Nextcloud’s Talk application. Skype won’t be easy to replace, but hey, I have replaced Google apps and services already.
The fabulous story of Skype
I still remember it like yesterday when I dialed my first Skype phone call. I had brand new headphones that were purchased for the occasion. It was a revelation. Mobile phone or fixed line telephone never delivered such audio quality. It was like the person at the other end (in another city, in this case) was sitting next to me. This happened 16 years ago.
Skype internet telephone service went live August 29, 2003. A couple of years earlier, a Swede named Niklas Zennström and a Dane named Janus Friis had employed Estonian programmers for a job for a telecommunications company they worked for. Both Zennström and Friis had since resigned because they were busy establishing internet startup businesses.
Together with Estonian techies that Friis and Zennström already knew, they had the idea to create a free telephone service that would run on the internet. It was free because Zennström and Friis had peer-to-peer software technology from their previous startup Kazaa. The first version of Skype was developed pretty quickly on top of the peer-to-peer network.
Later, Skype had plenty of features you could pay for if you wanted, like calling to landline numbers, sending text messages, or even having your own telephone number where people without Skype could call. As the popularity of the service grew, hiccups happened as well. Sometimes, it took awhile to establish a good connection.
The first buyer of Skype was Ebay that acquired the startup already in 2005. I can’t remember any problems for users because of that acquisition. It looked like Ebay left Skype alone to develop the product as they saw fit. The problems began when Microsoft bought Skype in 2011. The user interface and functionality was changed, and not always for the better.
I used the paid Skype services, and they worked fine for me. I still have money on my Skype account waiting to be used for phone calls, but I think I won’t be using it. It is time to move on.