Taming Skype: A Lesson in Privacy Trade-offs

July 30, 2012

Data privacySkype is perhaps the most popular form of international voice and video communications in the world.

It gained that popularity largely because it is free to use and it provides a substantial degree of privacy for the communications it handles.

In an effort to make its system more reliable, Skype has introduced significant technical changes to its network.  

Although those changes enhance service quality, they may also undermine user privacy.  This taming of the Skype network offers a stark illustration of the ways in which privacy is often traded away in exchange for other perceived benefits.

In its original form, Skype provided its services through use of a computer network that did not rely on central servers.  Skype calls were routed through numerous computers around the world.  The communications were protected through use of strong encryption, and the service was offered at no charge to users.

In recent years, however, the Skype network encountered service quality problems.

On more than one occasion, large portions of the Skype global network went out of service, leaving many users temporarily unable to communicate.   Users began to perceive a service quality problem.  Many became disgruntled, believing Skype to be unreliable.

This perception of unreliability was an important issue, particularly as Skype attempted to attract a wider range of users, including business users.

The company began to implement technical upgrades in its network to make the system more robust and reliable.  These upgrades were expedited when Microsoft acquired Skype.   The technical upgrades included creation of central computer nodes in the network.

This centralization helped to provide improved service quality and greater network reliability.  The centralization also made it possible for Skype to collect and monitor previously private information associated with Skype users.

The new and improved Skype network is more reliable and provides better service quality.  Yet it also now reportedly retains the Internet addresses of its users, as well as user chat content archived for a period of thirty days.

Now that Skype retains that private information of its users, the material will, of course, be accessible to governments around the world.  In an effort to improve the quality of its service and to make its network more reliable, user privacy has been reduced.

Some users will view that sacrifice to be necessary and appropriate.  Others will not agree.

The Skype experience provides an important policy lesson.  There are always trade-offs to be made in the world of information technology and communications services.

As the economists say, there is no free lunch.   When we want new features or services, or improved quality, trade-offs must be made.

When we gain something of value, we all too often lose something of value.  Skype’s experience shows us that when we seek reliability and security, we often acquire them at the expense of our personal privacy.

We should always recognize and consider carefully that trade-off.