Skype Could Open A Can Of Worms For Microsoft

Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype means it is now liable for things that most software companies never have to deal with, says Wayne Rash

Now that Microsoft is buying Skype, new complications have cropped up that its management may never have thought of when it inked the deal a couple of months ago. While Microsoft obviously knew that it was buying a phone company, did the company’s lawyers warn it that this would mean working with a whole new set of government agencies from a whole new direction?

For example, phone companies have a legal obligation to provide law enforcement with the ability to tap into conversations. While there’s supposed to be a court order to do this, the phone company still has to comply. This is true around the world, which is why India was about to ban BlackBerry devices last year. It’s also true in the United States, where the Department of Homeland Security and related agencies use wiretaps on a regular basis to keep tabs on suspected criminals and terrorists.

The ability to tap phones has been around for a long time. But the ability to tap into digital communications has been a tougher nut to crack. First, it was digital mobile phone calls, and now the problems centre around VoIP (voice over IP). It’s hard, but not impossible, to tap a VoIP call, but it helps a lot if you have access to the same switch where the VoIP call originates or terminates.

Microsoft becoming a phone company

Microsoft filed a patent in 2009 for technology that would greatly simplify the process of monitoring a VoIP conversation. At the time it was filed, this patent got little attention. After all, while Microsoft had telephony products at the time, it wasn’t a carrier. So if Microsoft had a need — or a warrant — that required listening in to a conversation over VoIP on its own phone system, it wouldn’t have been that hard to arrange.

But that was then, and this is now. Microsoft, which is in the final stages of buying Skype, is effectively becoming a phone company. While VoIP carriers such as Skype haven’t been wiretapped in the past, it was because of the technical difficulty. Once the voice information leaves the first Ethernet switch, it may be broken up into different packets being sent over different routes. Out on the open Internet, tapping such a phone conversation would have been impossible. With Microsoft’s patent, apparently this is no longer the case.

While it’s interesting that Microsoft came up with a way to monitor VoIP in a way that’s a lot easier than trying to capture packets in midflight, one has to wonder if the Redmond Giant was planning to become a phone company all along.

As intriguing as it might be to think that there was a long secret plan to become a phone company, it’s more likely the real reason was to provide a management capability for its existing VoIP products. Microsoft customers with Office Communicator have long been able to tie the product into the office phone systems and manage a VoIP network. On a more consumer level, Microsoft Live Messenger has been able to carry VOIP traffic for years.

It’s likely that Microsoft discovered how to monitor these calls during the development of these or some similar products and — suspecting that the day may arrive when such phone tapping becomes a legal requirement — patented the technology. In this case, the requirement turned out to be important at just the right time. While it’s possible that the company was prescient when it developed its “Legal Intercept” technology it’s more likely a fortuitous accident.

VoIP providers will be cornered

One of these days, the DHS is going to come calling, warrant in hand, and want to monitor a Skype conversation. Because Microsoft will now be legally obligated to provide the monitoring service, it will be able to meet the government’s requirement. Even better from Microsoft’s perspective is that all of those other VoIP carriers out there will no longer have a reason not to provide access — they just have to get a copy of the Microsoft monitoring product.

I’ll skip past the civil liberty discussion here. The US government has been able to monitor wired conversations for decades. Government agencies have been able to monitor mobile phone calls for years. Now it’s VoIP’s turn. While you may not like this, there is no getting away from it.

The fact is that the government has had this requirement for some time, and now it can be enforced on VoIP conversations. Like it or not, Microsoft found a way to do it, which will make compliance with these laws easier and cheaper for phone providers than it used to be. Some people may not consider this a good thing, but now there’s a way to do it. Maybe the DHS will catch a terrorist this way and make everyone else a believer.