They Are Watching You…

March 29, 2013 / by / 1 Comment
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You’re home alone one dreary night, scanning the TV series section on Netflix, trying to decide which acclaimed series to delve into next, when you hear a twig snap just outside. Your focus aims toward the window. Then you see it – a still figure poised outside, shrouded by the darkness. Immediate discomfort finds an unwelcome place in your chest and crawls up your throat. As you rise to your feet, the figure senses your awareness and begins to retreat. You rush to the front door and rip the door ajar. You catch a glimpse of your observer. Down the road, the shadowy figure is in a dead sprint. You suspicion is confirmed – you were being watched.

In the comfort of your own home, security should not be a prevailing concern. The idea of someone watching you is unsettling to say the least. Though someone watching you is not causing any physical harm, it is emotionally rattling when someone breaches your privacy. Those that have been stalked and possibly further abused by an obsessive villain will always have a lingering haunt of the time that individual breached their sense of refuge.

We have mentioned lawful intercept (LI) techniques utilized by government agencies to monitor communications in previous articles. In recent news, several journalists and other political activists recently submitted a letter to Skype requesting clarification of security practices referencing Skype’s somewhat vague privacy policy. The letter was submitted as an attempt to educate consumers about the whole spectrum of Skype’s services. The topic of LI is surrounded by controversy, so it is important for everyone unfamiliar with all aspects of information retention practices by government agencies to gain awareness of policies in place on communication networks.

Governments have utilized communication monitoring since the invention of the telephone, though it has only been legal in some instances for a couple decades. The CALEA Act was passed by President Bill Clinton, which allows the FBI to perform direct wiretaps on communications of suspected terrorists. Due process must be documented by the FBI before any communication is monitored. However, this process is not transparent to ordinary citizens, so it’s unknown exactly how many communications are monitored at any given time.

The problem with the original incarnation of the CALEA Act is that VoIP communications were not taken into consideration, as the technology was still mostly conceptual at the time. Digital communication can’t be simply “tapped” like the analog circuits that compose the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) of local exchange carriers around the country. So the law was refined around the time the Patriot Act was signed by George Bush to include VoIP communications.

Now that the law has been provisioned by appropriate regulation, the FBI is supposedly recording a large amount of landline communications and digital communications with a system known as DCSNet. There are a variety of DCS systems used by the FBI, which supposedly have the capability of recording any communication at any given time. The implication of these systems’ capabilities is that virtually any conversation may be observed in real time.

The company Voip-Pal.Com has gained a lot of attention recently because of a patent filed that enables the implementation of technology for LI. This refers to the specific process of obtaining data from digital communications. The technology for a universal LI platform was recently demonstrated through VoIP-Pal service PlatinumPhone, which is a mobile application for VoIP communication. Voip-Pal.Com is hoping to resell this technology to VoIP Service Providers (VSPs) all over the world to help them meet compliance with various law agencies.

This would lead one to believe that every single communication platform has the capability to be monitored, but that isn’t quite the case. VoIP, in general, works by utilizing a variety of high-level protocols that transmit data on top of traditional TCP/IP data streams. Skype uses a proprietary, closed-source protocol for their services, which is encrypted for security. Skype transmissions are nearly impenetrable, and no one has indicated a successful attempt at reverse engineering the Skype protocol.

Another unique feature to Skype lies within their business model. Skype is not a registered electronic communications operator in any country, which circumvents law enforcement agencies from enforcing compliance with backdoor monitoring techniques utilized on many VoIP provider networks today. For example, you may have AT&T as a cellular service provider and make calls using Skype. Though the data is transmitted over the AT&T network, the transmission is encrypted, which should prevent anyone from intercepting your conversation or video call. Further, they are not subjected to government enforcement.

ARCEP, the communication regulatory agency for France, has been in discussion with Skype, requesting that they file for permission to become a recognized telecom provider. Further, the entire EU – which has employed government surveillance under the ETSI (European Telecom Standards Institute) since 1988 – has been in debate with Skype because of their inability to directly monitor communications. China and many Middle Eastern countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, have blocked Skype and deemed the service illegal because communication networks in these countries operate as monopolies under government regulation. Skype refuses to register with any country as a true telecom provider, mostly as a service to their roughly 600 million users.

Though Skype is not subject to stealthy government monitoring techniques, they do comply with proper legal requests. If information is subpoenaed by law agencies, they will turn over requested information. This is where questions have surfaced pertaining to the Skype privacy policy. In 2012, MegaUpload founder, Kim DotCom, was incarcerated after a warrant produced some sketchy IM conversations through Skype that occurred in 2007. This contradicts Skype’s original privacy policy, which stated conversations are retained for 30 days at most. This has since been revised; the most current version of their privacy policy reads, “Depending on the message type, messages are generally stored by Skype for a maximum of between 30 and 90 days unless otherwise permitted or required by law.”

Skype users shouldn’t be worried about Feds watching their every video chat. However, VoIP service providers registered as telecom companies may be subject to government surveillance. The tenebrous label of “person of interest” is meant to be reserved for real criminals, not petty crimes. Though implementing LI may seem invasive, the intention is to help prevent large-scale crimes, not so much to take action against teenagers who set up meetings to buy or sell marijuana, for example.

The subject of LI is touchy, at best. Technology is continually proving to be a double-edged sword. Just as capabilities are unlocked through technology for positive pursuits, so are the privileges granted abused. Privacy may need to be sacrificed to create a more secure world. Only time will tell the outcome of new regulations because some people have a tendency to find ways to exploit otherwise good things.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

So the story goes: Art found Nick wandering downtown South Bend and he later asked Dan if we could keep him. Dan said “yes” and Nick came aboard. Nick splits his time writing for techie and working as a tech for virtualization company Cloud PC. When he’s not working, he occupies himself with music. Nick plays guitar and tinkers with other instruments – you’ll find him hanging around at local shows and occasionally jamming at various open mic nights.

One Response
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