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China's Skyping on you ...

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BEIJING: When in China, don't use Skype. Well, at least not the Chinese version called Tom-Skype, a joint venture between eBay (owner of Skype) and Tom Online. Canadian researchers at the University of Toronto have found that a "huge surveillance system in China" has been monitoring and tracking text messages sent through Tom-Skype. Basically if you type certain sensitive words like democracy your messages might be archived in their monitoring system. It also seems to block some of these words. Here's the New York Times on the story ...

The list includes words related to the religious group Falun Gong, Taiwan independence and the Chinese Communist Party, according to the researchers. It includes not only words like democracy, but also earthquake and milk powder. (Chinese officials are facing criticism over the handling of earthquake relief and chemicals tainting milk powder.)

The list also serves as a filter to restrict text conversations. The encrypted list of words inside the Tom-Skype software blocks the transmission of those words and a copy of the message is sent to a server. The Chinese servers retained personal information about the customers who sent the messages. They also recorded chat conversations between Tom-Skype users and Skype users outside China. The system recorded text messages and Skype caller identification, but did not record the content of Skype voice calls.

In just two months, the servers archived more than 166,000 censored messages from 44,000 users, according to a report that was published on the Information Warfare Monitor Web site at the university.

There's a full pdf of the report on the Tom-Skype monitoring here. Also informative (though not as complete as one would hope) is this report from Reporters Without Borders from last year about how some of the Internet censoring and monitoring works.

A couple months ago I got a Virtual Private Network (VPN) account from a foreign provider which allows me to get around any of the Great Firewall problems. After about a year of sluggish connections and no access to certain sites, getting this VPN was like emerging from a fog. (HuffingtonPost has been blocked here, by the way, since a month or so before the Olympics). Not only is everything faster, I can get to any site I want. There is also a free service now called HotspotShield from AnchorFree. Your average Chinese Internet user probably doesn't know much about these services, but the more savvy ones certainly do.

On a side note, I recently joined Twitter to see what the commotion was all about. This post is a direct benefit of that after having come across a tweet by Rebecca MacKinnon who regularly follows this type of news out of China and Hong Kong.