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Microsoft’s pending patent will enable wiretapping on VOIP Services

Microsoft has a patent application pending at the U.S. Patent Office for a technology that will open a legal backdoor in communications equipment to record Voice over IP (VoIP) conversations and chat.

The Redmond-based company has developed means to secretly intercept, monitor and record communications on VoIP networks. With Skype soon to be part of Microsoft, it's likely the technology will be used in some role with Skype’s VoIP client.

According to a filing with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, publicized June 28, the title of the patent application says "Legal Intercept". It is a technology designed to discreetly record communications on VoIP networks, such as Skype. Current systems would be modified to "cause the communication to be established via a path that includes a recording agent," Microsoft stated in its patent application.

Insiders say that the pending patent appears similar to tools telecom companies already use to comply with the government's wiretap and surveillance requests, which currently do not work for VoIP communications.

"VoIP may include audio messages transmitted via gaming systems, instant messaging protocols that send out audio, Skype and Skype-like applications, meeting software, video-conferencing software and the like," Microsoft stated in its application.

In the patent application, Microsoft explained how the recording agent could be placed inside a router, call server or within the network of a company. It can also be a software module installed between the call server and the VoIP network. While it does not specifically mention embedding the agent inside client software, it may be possible to do so in applications such as the Skype client.

With this technology, Microsoft will be able to intercept Internet communications data so that it can be recorded and examined at a later time. The company acknowledged that "a government or one of its agencies" may someday need to monitor communications between VoIP users.

The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act directs telecommunications carriers and communications providers to customize their equipment so that federal law enforcement agencies can use them for surveillance purposes. Federal law enforcement agencies are already trying to broaden the government's powers to wiretap Internet services in order to track and record criminal and terrorist conversations in the web.

Although Skype was mentioned in the patent application, it is not clear how Microsoft plans to use the technology with Skype. The application was filed last 2009, long before Microsoft's US$8.5 billion acquisition of Skype in May.

It is also not clear if Skype already has a similar mechanism to give federal law enforcement officials access to user communications. Skype has been historically very private about how its technology works, or what protocols and security measures are in place. Skype has also been adamant to make its system interoperable with other products.