VoIP worriesEU may investigate VoIP eavesdropping

Published 26 February 2009

Italian anti-crime authorities have asked the EU to look into regulating VoIP communication encryption; the Italian authorities presented evidence that crime rings and prostitution networks use Skype for the specific purpose of frustrating police investigators

Following a request from Italian legal authorities, a European Union (EU) crime fighting body is considering ways to investigate eavesdropping on Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services such as Skype. The announcement came in response to a request from the Italian anti-mafia office in Rome, the Direzione Nazionale Antimafia, according to Eurojust, the EU’s judicial cooperation unit.

The Italian police believe organized criminals and prostitution rings are turning to Skype, of Luxembourg, and other VoIP systems to frustrate investigators, according to recent reports. Unlike regular cell phone calls, VoIP services cannot be tapped at local exchanges. Skype also has a proprietary encryption method. The BBC quoted an Italian official’s frustration: “Skype’s encryption system is a secret which the company refuses to share with the authorities.”

John Wagley writes in Security Management that Eurojust’s most recent post on the subject, dated 25 February, seemed to take a step back from a statement posted several days before. Eurojust stated it needed an update because the investigation was “not yet an official case.” A Skype spokesperson had responded tersely to the original (now removed) announcement. “Skype remains interested in working with Eurojust despite the fact that they chose not to contact us before issuing this inaccurate report,” the spokesperson told Zdnet. Skype “works with law enforcement agencies where legally and technically possible.”

Legal frustration with Skype has been reported in other parts of the continent. Late last year, German police searched an office of the country’s Pirate Party (Piratenpartei Deutschland), according to the Register, hoping to discover details about an apparent leak of a police Skype interception plan. Earlier in 2008, police plans to develop a Trojan horse meant for Skype eavesdropping was reportedly leaked to the site WikiLeaks.

The Register reports that during the raid, the police plundered encrypted files and computer servers. The Pirate Party won just 0.3 percent of the Hesse state election in 2008. Its plank consists mainly of the right to copyright and other privacy protections.