SOFTWARE FIRM Microsoft has patented technology that enables it or the government to "silently record" users' internet communications, or, in other words, spy on them.
The patent, numbered 20,110,153,809 and entitled Legal Intercept, was filed in late December 2009 and finally approved on 23 June. It relates to modifying data to allow a recording agent to establish a communication session and then silently record the communication.
The fact that it has the title Legal Intercept is rather telling, as it means Microsoft has done the legal legwork to find out whether or not it could intercept information. Apparently it can, and now that it has a patent for the technology it can sue others who try to spy on people too.
The technology can be used by the US government or "one of its agencies", according to the background information in the patent application. It says that sometimes these "need to monitor communications between telephone users" without explaining why they need to do this.
It notes that using this technology would require obtaining "appropriate legal permission", which might not be that difficult for a government to acquire. What's more interesting is that Microsoft has legally patented the technology.
It's not clear if Microsoft has been approached by any governments about this technology, but it appears that it is setting up a potential monopoly on spying technology that governments might want to license from it in the future. Although there might be all sorts of legal hurdles to overcome, such deals could be extremely lucrative for Microsoft.
Microsoft claimed that the advent of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), such as the Skype service it plans to buy, makes traditional techniques for recording telephone conversations somewhat obsolete. Therefore it said that a new approach needs to be taken, which is covered in the company's patent.
While some might speculate that this technology is being deliberately targeted at Microsoft's implementation of Skype, the original filing date suggests the company was working on the technology long before it thought of buying Skype.
The patent covers far more than just Skype and similar VoIP software, however. It mentions smartphones, instant messaging and even communications systems used in gaming networks, such as Microsoft's Xbox Live or Sony's Playstation Network. This could potentially allow a government to snoop on any communications, with the required legal authority of course (*cough*). µ
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