A massive breach of privacy involving the Chinese arm of the popular Skype Internet messaging tool has offered a glimpse of the movement in China to dispel the ruling communist party.
The University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab stole headlines last week when the anti-censorship research hub announced it had found one million-plus messages that the Chinese version of Skype recorded on an unsecure server likely shared with Chinese authorities.
Despite widespread press coverage, the content of those logs has gone relatively unreported. A substantial portion of the logs is in fact about a grassroots movement to dissolve the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), according to Citizen Lab’s Nart Villeneuve, the researcher who uncovered the security breach.
The movement to quit the CCP is a result of an editorial series published by The Epoch Times called Nine Commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The series offers unprecedented insight into the history and nature of the communist party, much of which has been censored by the regime.
It has sparked a movement among Chinese to declare their withdrawal from the party and its affiliated organizations, the Communist Youth League and Communist Young Pioneers. To date, nearly 50 million have made such announcements on a special website established by The Epoch Times.
The editorials are spread secretly in China as those possessing them have been subjected to arrest and persecution.
“A lot of those messages were to do with that campaign,” said Villeneuve, who uncovered the fact that the Skype logs were being monitored and archived.
“When looking through the log files, that commentary critical of the communist party is being targeted.”
Villeneuve said he researched Tom-Skype because he suspected there was something untoward going on.
When people in China try to download Skype, the friendly software that turns your computer into a telephone that can call anywhere in the world without long-distance charges, they get redirected to Tom-Skype.
Tom-Skype is like normal Skype but it isn’t nearly as secure, and if you mention Falun Gong, Taiwan, communist party or a host of other words or phrases it records your conversation.
Typically, China’s regime has used information from web companies to track down dissidents, some of whom have been arrested and sentenced to jail.
In one famous case, journalist Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years after Yahoo’s Hong Kong office shared his personal information with the authorities.
It seems Skype has now joined a growing list of companies implicated in helping the Chinese regime monitor its own citizens’ online activity.
Villeneuve noted that a number of Chinese chatters had responded favourably to arguments for ending communism but he wouldn’t talk in detail about the logged discussions to protect the safety of the Skype chatters.
This is also the reason why Party Quitting Centre volunteers in North America warn their chatters about surveillance, says Rong Yi, a volunteer with a centre in Flushing, New York.
“We are worried that once the Chinese government got hold of these peoples’ names, there might be a danger they could lose their lives.”
Rong Yi said volunteers are “very much concerned” as it appears no method of communicating is secure now.
“We can’t use Yahoo messenger, email is not safe, phones are not safe, and now Skype is not safe. We don’t know what to use.”
A report by Citizen Lab stated that Villeneuve’s findings should serve as a warning for groups engaging in political activism or using censorship circumvention technology accessed through companies that have compromised on human rights.
“What is clear is that Tom-Skype is engaging in extensive surveillance with seemingly little regard for the security and privacy of Skype users,” the Citizen Lab’s report on the discovery said. “This is in direct contradiction of Skype’s public statements regarding their policies in China.”