Skype allegedly developed a clandestine program dubbed Project Chass that investigated potential ways to increase government and law enforcement access to its VoIP calling service, years in advance of Microsoft’s acquisition in 2011. Project Chess was formed while Skype had “sometimes contentious talks with the government over legal issues,” insiders tell the NYTimes, with knowledge of the program limited to under a dozen within the firm.
The Project Chess group was put together around five years ago, it’s suggested, while still majority owned by eBay. Never before revealed, the claims about Project Chess come roughly a year after Skype was accused of taking advantage of a massive infrastructure change-over during the handover to Microsoft to install messaging monitoring systems.
At the time, Skype’s development and operations office vehemently denied the accusations. However, Skype is said to have joined the NSA’s PRISM program in February 2011, several months ahead of the Microsoft deal being announced, and eight months before the handover.
According to industry insiders, Project Chess is an example of a surprisingly common – though under the radar – attempt by Silicon Valley firms to “cooperate more completely with the NSA”. Despite publicly denying giving backdoor access to the National Security Agency and other branches, those tipsters suggest, the homegrown tools are developed so that firms “control the process themselves.”
There’s also a “subtle but powerful pressure” from agencies like the NSA to streamline the system by which user data access is gained, it’s said. Meanwhile, over the past few years, those government agencies have begun investing significantly in “big data” startups.
Microsoft has declined to comment on whether Skype calls are, as was once widely touted, immune from wiretapping. However, the belief is that architectural changes to the Skype network may have removed that advantage.
Earlier this month, in the face of PRISM monitoring accusations, Microsoft gave the following statement:
“We provide customer data only when we receive a legally binding order or subpoena to do so, and never on a voluntary basis. In addition we only ever comply with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers. If the government has a broader voluntary national security program to gather customer data we don’t participate in it.”