Skype’s VoIP service is popular as a cheap and convenient way to make international phone calls. Its sophisticated encryption technology can also evade wire taps. That made it a valuable tool during Arab Spring, allowing dissidents to organize without being monitored. Now, gang members are using increasingly using VoIP technology to communicate discreetly to organize and commit crimes, the FBI says.
Instead of using cell phones and e-mail, the FBI says gang members are increasingly modifying and exploiting existing technologies to create communication networks that are difficult to intercept or monitor by law enforcement, according to a previously unreleased version of the FBI’s 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment.
The public version of the report was released last year on FBI.gov. The California Gang Investigators Association recently posted the law enforcement sensitive version on its Web site. This more recent version contains 20 additional pages, including a section on how gangs use technology like Skype to communicate.
Gang members are using VoIP services, gaming systems, and virtual worlds to communicate internationally, the report says. Law enforcement officials say drug traffickers have in the past used Skype to communicate between United States, Europe, Asia, and Mexico to “discuss criminal transactions.”
The U.S. Army says the Taliban and terrorist organizations use the same technology to disguise their voices when communicating via VoIP, according to the report. In several states, gang members have used the Xbox’s VoIP function to communicate with drug suppliers. FBI reporting indicates that gang members in California and Chicago used gaming consoles to talk on webcam and VoIP.
Skype’s high level of encryption comes from the company’s commitment to privacy for its users – it wanted to make sure users couldn’t eavesdrop on other’s conversations.
“Skype is tough to intercept not only because of its design, but also due to its legal status,” The Wall Street Journal reported in June. “In the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere, laws require telecommunications providers to install interception capabilities, so police can eavesdrop on criminals if necessary." Skype, of Luxembourg, doesn't see itself as falling under those laws (Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act).
And because Skype calls don’t pass through Skype servers – calls are linked directly from computer to computer – even Skype can't intercept the calls. Only the computers on the call have the encryption/decryption codes. For Skype calls made from landline or mobile phones, the parts of the call that take place on the public switched telephone network aren't encrypted.