France, Skype go tête-à-tête over lawful intercept

The regulator, ARCEP, posted a notice explaining that Skype, the voice-over-IP audio and video chat service, has failed to register as an "electronic communications operator" despite multiple requests to do so. That means ARCEP has no authority over Skype to order it to "implement the means required to perform legally ordered interceptions." That is, to provide a means for French law enforcement to eavesdrop on calls should there be probable cause to suspect criminal activity by the caller in question.

ARCEP also said that it “has apprised the Paris public prosecutor of these facts, which could be classified as a criminal offense.”

For its part, Skype told Ars Technica that it feels no need to be classified as a telecom provider, subject therefore to regulation.

“Skype is a globally known and used software app that seamlessly enables millions of people to communicate every day via their Internet connection,” the company said in a statement. “We have engaged with ARCEP in discussion over the last several months during which we shared our view that Skype is not a provider of electronic communications services under French law. We will continue to work with ARCEP in a constructive fashion to seek agreement on a resolution that ensures people, wherever they are, can continue to rely on Skype as they do today.”

Lisa Vaas, in the Sophos Naked Security blog, pointed out that the issue hauls Skype’s handling of customer privacy into question. The operator has a reputation for being a bit of a privacy-hound, which for some means a safe harbor for everyone from bunker enthusiasts to drug lords to jihadists. However, Skype has complied with law enforcement on many occasions in the US. The Washington Post, she noted, reported that Skype has actually made its architecture easier for lawful intercept since being bought by Microsoft two years ago. 

“Skype may never have deserved its former reputation as a safe harbor for activists to communicate without fear of interception,” she writes. “So it would seem that if France does put the collar around Skype's neck and get it to heel, not much will change. If French citizens ever inhabited a safe zone outside of that type of surveillance, it sounds like that bubble will likely get popped soon.”

Regardless, it’s clear that France and Skype must reach a détente – which may or may not be a difficult process.

“As was true before the Microsoft acquisition, Skype cooperates with law enforcement agencies as is legally required and technically feasible,” the online service told the Washington Post.

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