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Criminals using Skype, say Italian police

The Italian police force has become the latest to voice complaints that the Skype VoIP service is undermining their use of wiretapping in criminal investigations.

According to a BBC report, authorities in Milan have admitted that organised crime in Italy is increasingly turning to encrypted Skype sessions for critical communications as a way of stymieing remote surveillance.

To back up the claim, customs and tax police are said to have overheard a drug trafficker recommending the use of Skype to discuss confidential details of a consignment, making it impossible for the authorities to intercept it. Wiretaps are heavily used by the Italian police, leading to calls in some quarters to limit their use.

No named source is given for the police admission, but Skype is known to be a frustration for authorities across the world. A year ago, a leaked document on the Wikileaks website appeared to show that the German authorities were so concerned by criminal Skype use that they had hired a software company to write Trojans capable of recording Skype data on the PCs of targets for later analysis.

The issue with Skype is that its encryption scheme is strong, and the way calls are set up and encryption implemented is proprietary and is considered by the company to be a trade secret. Desktop surveillance of the call stream using a specially-written program, diverting traffic through a proxy server, or even direct call blocking to render it inoperable, remain the only ways of intercepting Skype, all complex than wiretapping conventional phone calls.

In the US, unconfirmed and always unsourced reports emerge from time to time, claiming that the NSA (national Security Agency) is so concerned by Skype that it is actively trying to break its encryption.

One such report from only last week made the unlikely claim that US authorities would be prepared to offer "billions" to anyone who could find a way around it. The same story also reported similarly routine claims that the NSA was about to "break" Skype's encryption.