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Privacy Advocates Put Microsoft's Transparency Report In Context

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, March 25 2013

Microsoft's publication of its first law enforcement transparency report last Thursday met with praise from privacy advocates, who hope that this will spur others to do the same. However, some of them warned that the numbers have to be viewed in broader context.

For example, the low number of legal requests for user information on Skype in China belies the way government authorities surveil users of its Skype-TOM service, the Chinese version of Skype, said Jason Cronk, a lawyer and privacy-by-design consultant in Plant City, Florida.

"I do have some reservations on taking the information at face value," he told techPresident via e-mail. "China's mere 6 request for Skype data ignore the Tom partnership and how much they get without the necessity of a legal request. What other similar situations around the world might there be where Microsoft, or a subsidiary, simply hands over (or sells) data without the need for any legal request?"

For example, a recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek article reports that a U.S. security researcher "for the first time identified the thousands of terms—such as “Amnesty International” and “Tiananmen”—that prompt Skype in China to intercept typed messages and send copies to its computer servers in the country. Some messages are blocked altogether."

An interactive graphic on the site illustrates the point vividly (apparently Jon Huntsman's name, the U.S.' former ambassador to China, was one of the blocked phrases.)

Microsoft issued a statement to Bloomberg BusinessWeek saying that it has to respect the local laws in response to queries about the surveillance.

Nevertheless, the advocates were happy that Microsoft published the data, and hope that it will spur further action in this area.

"I think it's important to realize the mere fact that Microsoft produced this report means we're going in a positive direction," Cronk said. "Market pressure should be put on other companies (particularly the telcos) to release similar figures. I think the numbers on that side will be staggering compared to Microsoft. I was actually pleasantly surprised that Microsoft's number were low compared to their customer base."

He added: "It would be nice if companies could put this in a machine-readable form so that someone could produce an infographic of the requests across the various internet companies, especially if they were done relative to the populations."

"I'm pretty happy that we managed to organize as a community and convince Microsoft that getting this report out is the right thing to do," said Nadim Kobeissi, a computer security researcher known for creating the open-source chat app Cryptocat, which encrypts online conversations. Kobeissi was one of the activists who had developed the Open Letter To Skype campaign. "I'm optimistic about the privacy implications and hope that future reports will be more polished and content-filled. However, I hope that in the future we will learn more on how Skype and Microsoft plan on defending user privacy from overreaching government requests."