Microsoft is has bunged end-to-end encrypted communications into Skype using the open-source Signal protocol.
Redmond has been a laggard in locking down Skype as a truly end-to-end encrypted comms system – end-to-end meaning only the people talking to each other can decrypt the chatter, leaving Microsoft and whoever may be eavesdropping on the connections in the dark.
The new functionality, dubbed Private Conversations, safeguards audio calls, text messages and shared files, although it is only, for now, going out in a limited release for Skype Insider testers. It can only be used for one-on-one chats. The group conversations Redmond is touting as a key business tool won’t be covered by the Signal system.
“With Private Conversations, you can have end-to-end encrypted Skype audio calls and send text messages or files like images, audio, or videos, using the industry standard Signal Protocol by Open Whisper Systems,” said
Microsoft program manager Ellen Kilbourne on Thursday.
“The content of these conversations will be hidden in the chat list as well as in notifications to keep the information you share private. You can only participate in a private conversation from a single device at a time. You can switch the conversation to any of your devices, but the messages you send and receive will be tied to the device you’re using at the time.”
Signal is the gold standard of end-to-end encryption. Its development is headed by dreadlocked computer security guru Moxie Marlinspike at Whisper Systems, and the code
is endorsed by the likes of Edward Snowden and Bruce Schneier. Google’s Allo, Facebook’s WhatsApp, and the social network’s Messenger client have been using Signal since 2016. One has to wonder why it has taken so long for Microsoft to get onboard.
Skype’s old distributed peer-to-peer communications used to be considered pretty good for privacy. But in 2012, a year after Microsoft bought out Skype, the service moved to using supernodes
hosted inside Redmond’s data centers for communication, a move that some said was to make it easier for the tech giant to work with law enforcement to intercept calls and chatter.
Skypedenied the claims in a carefully worded memo
, saying the changes were all about improving the quality of service and making it easier to roll out new applications. Microsoft does hand over some people’s details and chat logs where “legally required and technically feasible,” Mark Gillett, the company’s chief operating officer said at the time.
But then came the Snowden disclosures, and it turned out that things at Skype were not as they seemed. The comms biz was part of the NSA’s PRISM surveillance network
, which shunted the intelligence agency data about email, chat logs, any stored data, VoIP traffic, files transfers, social networking data – and Microsoft was a founding member of PRISM back in 2007.
To make matters worse there were also reports that Skype had been running an internal team, codenamedProject Chess, which was tasked with making it easier for the Feds to not only collect metadata, but also to listen in on calls and conversations.
Whether Microsoft’s latest move to Signal will really help is in question, given the software goliath’s past tactics. Those who really want secure communications should probably just cut out the middleman, and install Signal’s app.
Separately, there was a flap earlier this week about hackers and spies being able to slip into Signal-protected WhatsApp group chats by compromising WhatsApp servers. However, Marlinspike explained
that doing so would tip off everyone in a group that someone had been added, and that all end-to-end encrypted conversations up to that point in the group could not be read by the snoop. ®