Skype calls may be tapped in police crackdown on criminal groups

Suspicious phone conversations on Skype could be targeted for tapping as part of a pan-European crackdown on what law authorities believe is a massive technical loophole in current wiretapping laws –allowing criminals to communicate without fear of being overheard by the police.

The European investigation could also help U.S. law enforcement authorities gain access to Internet calls. The National Security Agency (NSA) is understood to believe that suspected terrorists use Skype to circumvent detection.

While the police can get a court order to tap a suspect’s land line and mobile phone, it is currently impossible to get a similar order for Internet calls on both sides of the Atlantic.

Eurojust, a European Union agency responsible for coordinating judicial investigations across different jurisdictions announced Friday the opening of an investigation involving all 27 countries of the European Union.

“We will bring investigators from all 27 member states together to find a common approach to this problem,” said Joannes Thuy, a spokesman for Eurojust based in The Hague in the Netherlands.

The purpose of Eurojust’s coordination role is to overcome “the technical and judicial obstacles to the interception of Internet telephony systems”, Eurojust said.

The main judicial obstacles are the differing approaches to data protection in the various E.U. member states, Thuy said.

The investigation is being headed by Eurojust’s Italian representative, Carmen Manfredda.

Criminals in Italy are increasingly making phone calls over the Internet in order to avoid getting caught through mobile phone intercepts, according to Direzione Nazionale Antimafia, the anti-Mafia office in Rome.

Police officers in Milan say organized crime, arms and drugs traffickers, and prostitution rings are turning to Skype and other systems of VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) telephony in order to frustrate investigators.

While telecommunications companies are obliged to comply with court orders to monitor calls on land lines and mobile phones, “Skype’s encryption system is a secret which the company refuses to share with the authorities,” Eurojust said.

In addition to the issue of cooperation, there are technical obstacles to tapping Skype calls. The way calls are set up and carried between computers is proprietary, and the encryption system used is strong.

It could be possible to monitor the call on the originating or receiving computer using a specially written program, or perhaps to divert the traffic through a proxy server, but these are all far more difficult than tapping a normal phone.

Calls between a PC and a regular telephone via the SkypeIn or SkypeOut service, however, could fall under existing wiretapping regulations and capabilities at the point where they meet the public telephone network.

The pan-European response to the problem may open the door for the U.S. to take similar action, Thuy said.

“We have very good cooperation with the U.S.,” he said, pointing out that a U.S. prosecutor, Marylee Warren, is based in The Hague in order to liaise between U.S. and European judicial authorities.

The NSA (National Security Agency) is so concerned by Skype that it is offering hackers large sums of money to break its encryption, according to unsourced reports in the U.S.

Italian investigators have become increasingly reliant on wiretaps, Eurojust said.

The Italian police force has complained that the Skype VoIP service is undermining their use of wiretapping in criminal investigations.

They cite the recent example of customs and tax police in Milan, who overheard a suspected cocaine trafficker telling an accomplice to switch to Skype in order to get details of a 2kg drug consignment.

According to a BBC report, authorities in Milan have admitted organized crime in Italy is increasingly turning to encrypted Skype sessions for critical communications as a way of stymieing remote surveillance.

Wiretaps are heavily used by the Italian police, leading to calls in some quarters to limit their use.

No named source is given for the police admission, but Skype is known to be a frustration for authorities across the world.

A year ago, a leaked document on the Wikileaks website appeared to show that the German authorities were so concerned by criminal Skype use that they had hired a software company to write Trojans capable of recording Skype data on the PCs of targets for later analysis.

The issue with Skype is that its encryption scheme is strong, and the way calls are set up and encryption implemented is proprietary and is considered by the company to be a trade secret.

Desktop surveillance of the call stream using a specially-written program, diverting traffic through a proxy server, or even direct call blocking to render it inoperable, remain the only ways of intercepting Skype, all complex than wiretapping conventional phone calls.

In the U.S., unconfirmed and always unsourced reports emerge from time to time, claiming that the NSA (national Security Agency) is so concerned by Skype that it is actively trying to break its encryption.

One such report from only last week made the unlikely claim that US authorities would be prepared to offer “billions” to anyone who could find a way around it.

The same story also reported similarly routine claims that the NSA was about to “break” Skype’s encryption.

“Investigators are convinced that the interception of telephone calls have become an essential tool of the police, who spend millions of euros each year tracking down crime through wiretaps of land lines and mobile phones,” Eurojust said.

The first meeting of Eurojust’s 27 national representatives is planned in the coming weeks but precise details of its timing and the location of the meeting remain secret, Thuy said.

“They will exchange information and then we will give advice on how to proceed,” he said. Bringing Internet telephony into line with calls on land lines and mobile phones “could be the price we have to pay for our security,” he said.

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