Is your Skype account secure? Do you have the best privacy settings configured on your desktop or mobile Skype app? We look at how to secure your account and ensure that your privacy is maintained when using the popular VOIP service.
The Importance of Maintaining Privacy on Skype
Skype is the most recognised name in VOIP calling and video conferencing, its name so synonymous with both that it has morphed into a verb (“to Skype someone”) and was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2011.
Making a call to another Skype user is surprisingly simple, and a call to landlines and mobiles is just as easy as using a phone. It just works.
However, Skype has issues. Just as landlines and mobile are subjected to unsolicited calls, so Skype is a focus of scammers in the shape of adverts sent via the instant messaging service. In most cases, your landline and mobile account is secure and requires some effort for criminals to hack (unless you’ve left your voicemail PIN unchanged); however, this is not the case with Skype. If your associated email account is breached, your Skype account might be too – and I speak from experience.
Fortunately there are steps you can take to prevent these problems, from setting a secure, memorable password on Skype and your associated email account (not to mention on your computer or mobile device) to ensuring that Skype’s privacy settings are correctly configured.
Whether you’re using a desktop Skype or a mobile device, you can find the corresponding steps below. To make it easier to find the right settings for your operating system, please use this mini contents list to jump instantly to the right section:
Skype Security & Privacy: The Truth
Before proceeding, it’s worth considering a few home truths. While your Skype account can be secured – on any platform – from unwanted callers and spammers, the cold hard fact is that the system is not 100% private.
While you’re busy making your phone call, for instance, the other person could be using call recording software to create a recording of the event. Plenty of these apps exist, many of them free.
Similarly, Skype video chats can also be recorded. If you have nothing to hide then your video conversation – naturally with a trusted contact – shouldn’t be an issue, but if you’re engaging in calls that require some discretion, then again, you need to think about what you’re doing, and whether there is a better, more secure alternative.
We should also spend a few minutes thinking about Skype itself. Once upon a time, it was a peer-to-peer service, which meant that data from calls went through various computers with Skype installed but not engaged in a call. Prior to its purchase by Microsoft, Skype was apparently planning to enable some form of backdoor for US security services to access call content.
Since the takeover, the Skype call network topography has changed drastically, from the distributed, peer-to-peer model (which is more or less how Bittorrent works) to the use of several central services. While this might reduce load on hardware of Skype users (particularly useful for mobile Skypers) it has made gathering call information and content far easier. Their policy states:
While a policy that concerns the monitoring of links sent over Skype is mostly to combat phishing spam, it is worth noting that Skype data can be requested by law enforcement and security agencies. So, if you’re using Skype, make sure you’re not doing anything that might be considered illegal in your own or the territory of the people you’re communicating with.
From contacts information being chewed up by the NSA to create a visual profile of you and the people you communicate with online, to malicious adverts popping up in the Skype client trying to push fake Java, QuickTime or Adobe updates, it’s clear that Skype isn’t the secure communications tool that we would like it to be. With this in mind, the following has been put together for your reference – privacy guides for every Skype app across every desktop and mobile platform.
After all, if you’re going to continue using Skype, you might as well know how to ensure it remains as secure as possible.
If you’re using Windows, Mac OS X or Linux, you can easily Skype contacts from the comfort of your desktop while working, perhaps checking documents or gaming.
However you use Skype, it is imperative that you understand your privacy settings and use them effectively.
The most widely used version of Skype is the Windows desktop client, which over the years has changed several times. Fortunately the current version has a strong collection of tools for managing your privacy.
Start with the Skype client running, and opening Skype > Privacy…. Here, you can decide the type of Skype users who can contact you, so to tighten your Skype privacy for calls and instant messaging, activate people in my Contact list only.
Instant messages can be restricted by finding the setting labelled Allow IMs from, and choosing people in my Contact list only.
Video calls and screen sharing can also be managed (on older versions this option will be available by expanding Show advanced options). Under Automatically receive video and share screens with, choose people in my Contact list only, or for the tightest privacy: no one).
For those concerned about being involved in Microsoft’s targeted ad network, confirm that the check box against Allow Microsoft targeted ads, including use of Skype profile and gender is cleared.
It can be useful to look back on past conversations, particularly if you and your friends regularly share links on Skype. However, some previous chats may prove embarrassing and while the default 30 day log is useful, the desktop client enables you to disable chat history entirely.
Do this by opening Skype > Privacy… then finding the Keep history for label (in older versions look for the Show advanced options link first). Use the drop down menu to set this to no history, and click the Clear history button to remove your chat history to date.
Contact management is part and parcel of remaining secure on Skype, and blocking and unblocking contacts is particularly straightforward. To block someone, right-click their username in your Skype app and select Block This Person… from the menu. Check the Remove from your Contact list box, then confirm with the Block button.
You’ll spot another checkbox, Report abuse. Use this if the contact has been misbehaving themselves and you would like Skype to know about it.
Unblocking contacts is just as easy. In Skype > Privacy…, click Blocked contacts, click the contact you want to unblock and then click Unblock this person.
If for some reason you’re using the Modern interface version of Skype (and you really shouldn’t be) then you’ll also need to take privacy related precautions.
Begin by managing who can contact you on Skype, so with the app open, find the Settings option on the Charms menu, select Options, and find Privacy. Here you should see two fields, Who can call you? and Who can send you instant messages?.
To be ultra-secure and avoid spam of all kinds, set both options to Only my contacts. However, you may wish to enable anyone to call you (not a good idea if you have a phone number attached to Skype) so you may prefer to set the first option to Everyone. Skype spam is rife, so make sure you set the instant messaging option so that only the people you know on Skype can message you.
If you’re concerned about video calls and screen sharing, the options above Privacy, labelled Video, can be used. Specifically we’re looking at Incoming video and screen sharing, which by default is set to start automatically. Shore this up by switching to Ask, which will give you the option to reject video calls or screen sharing.
For incoming calls, you can continue this privacy-focused attitude. Scroll down to Calls on the same screen and ensure you have Answer incoming calls automatically set to No. You should also ensure that Turn on video automatically is set to No.
Finally, you can manage what conversation history is retained in the Modern interface version of Skype. In Settings > Options look for the Clear all conversation history section and tap the clear history to have this information deleted from your computer. The Skype cloud will retain your conversations for 30 days.
Skype on Mac OS X has its own collection of privacy tools, not too different from those on Windows. With the app running and selected, open the Skype menu and select Preferences… to find the Privacy panel.
Your profile picture privacy – a setting that determines who can see your face – can be determined using the Show my picture to option, where the options are Anyone and Contacts.
The next setting, Allow calls from, offers the same option choice, and lets you decide who can make Skype-to-Skype calls with you. If you’re concerned about Skype spam, and you should be, then this should be limited to Contacts. Similarly if you have a Skype number setup, Receive calls to my Skype number can be configured so that Known numbers and Contacts can call you; setting Anyone as the option will again result in you receiving spam calls, this time from the usual automated systems that haunt landlines and mobiles around the world.
Perhaps the very reason you’re using Skype!
Skype users sending video and enabling screen sharing can be restricted using the Allow video and screen sharing from setting. Here, select Nobody or Contacts for the most secure options; you probably don’t want to receive video of total strangers on Skype.
To determine who can send you messages, use the final setting, Allow messages from. As you may have read above, Skype still has issues with spammy instant messages, so the Contacts option is best here. If someone who isn’t a contact wishes to message you, they can add you as a new contact, so you’re not going to miss anything important.
Managing contacts in Skype on OS X is all-important. Regularly spend time checking that your contacts are people you need on Skype, and if there is a contact that you decide should be blocked, click Contacts, right-click the individual, then select Block (which is followed by the contact’s name). Confirm in the following box; you’ll also be able to Report abuse from this person if they have been acting unreasonably. Click Block to finish. Should you wish to unblock a contact, open Skype > Preferences… > Privacy, click Manage Blocked Users, select the contact to unblock and click the Unblock button.
Chat history for Mac OS X users (as with all) is retained in Skype’s cloud for 30 days, but you can have longer chat history saved on your computer by opening Skype > Preferences… > Privacy and changing the option in the Save chat history menu. With the options Never, 1 Month, 3 Months, 1 Year or Forever you should find a setting that matches your requirements. For the ultimate in privacy, of course, you’ll select Never. You can also manually delete history with the Delete All Chat History button.
Still maintained by Microsoft, the Skype client app for Linux is also suitably equipped with a collection of tools to manage your online privacy.
Find the Privacy screen to get started, found in the app’s Options menu. For the tightest security, use only people I have allowed under Allow calls from and Allow chats from. You’ll notice the trio of settings beneath this, three options with checkboxes to toggle them off and on. For the most secure results, the checkboxes against Allow my status to be shown on the web, Allow my contacts to see the number of contacts I have and Automatically answer incoming calls should all be cleared.
If you’ve read any of the other sections in this guide you’ll know that it is important to be aware of how long chat history is retained by Skype (30 days by default) and how long it stays on your computer. You can manage this locally by changing the setting in the Keep chat history for… menu to something that suits – this might be 30 days, 60 or even forever, but for the most secure setting, choose Disable.
Managing your Skype contact settings in Linux is just as simple. To remove a contact you no longer want, browse the contacts list, click the down arrow and select Remove from Contacts, clicking Yes to confirm.
To block Skype contacts, perhaps because they’re harassing you, select the down arrow next to the appropriate user and select Block this User. A confirmation box will be displayed. Click Yes to continue, although you might first want to check the Report abuse from this person box as well to notify Skype of their inconsiderate behaviour.
Skype’s video call function can also be made more private in Linux. Under Options > Video Devices, ensure that the Start my video automatically when I am in a call option is not checked. This can at the very least save you from some highly embarrassing moments. Meanwhile, use the Automatically receive video from… setting to specify who can send you their video feed. Choose only people I have allowed or nobody, depending upon your preferred privacy option.
Mobile Skype Privacy Settings
It’s fortunate that Skype is available on mobile devices as it can help you to save money making calls (although battery life can be heavily impacted, so make sure you are updated to the most recent, battery-friendly versions). Before proceeding here, you should take the time to ensure that you have secured your actual handset as best you can, activating any in-built security PIN features to ensure that your Skype account cannot be compromised by someone stealing your phone.
While mobile Skype apps aren’t as comprehensive in their privacy features as their desktop brothers and sisters, you should still spend the time ensuring everything is setup in a manner that you’re comfortable with.
While the various desktop apps are more or less the same, Skype on Windows Phone is a little different to the other mobile versions, and is probably most similar to the Windows 8 Modern version.
The main difference, however, is that functionally it is limited in the number of privacy options that are included. Whereas with iOS and Android you can manage contacts in the People list, with the Windows Phone version, contacts can only be blocked by opening a conversation window.
Furthermore, and shamefully for software produced by Microsoft for a Microsoft platform, there is no way to specify how contacts can contact you. You can’t, for example, specify that instant messages and calls only come in from people you have setup as contacts.
It’s a pretty shabby state of affairs, I think you’ll agree.
The saving grace is that you can block people. To do this, open a message window by tapping on the relevant contact in the People view, open the menu and select Block contact. While you will be asked for confirmation, note that there is no option to send a message to Skype reporting that contact as offensive or a spammer.
Put simply, if you’re using Skype for Windows Phone, your main privacy options will need to be setup on a desktop computer.
Privacy on Apple’s iOS devices is – surprisingly – less sophisticated than on Windows Phone.
Indeed, it isn’t even possible to block a contact on iOS, never mind report one. Skype on iOS is a barren wasteland of privacy options, with the only real control over how notifications are displayed and whether or not your location is shared (which, of course, you should always have disabled in Settings > Skype).
Instead, you’ll need to sign into your Skype account on Windows, Linux or Mac OS X in order to manage your privacy settings. This is clearly a massive omission that needs resolving sooner rather than later, so let’s hope that future Skype updates for iOS include this functionality. It is, after all, quite laughable that a platform more or less capable of replacing desktop computing doesn’t have a fully configurable Skype app.
For the best mobile control over a Skype account, use Android.
Using Android? Your Skype Privacy settings are available by opening Menu > Settings in the main view, and you can set Allow IMs from and Receive calls from to Contacts only in order to keep things more private. It is also in this section that you will find the Allow Microsoft targeted ads checkbox, which should be cleared if you don’t want to see or be featured in these.
Contacts in Skype can be managed either in the People screen (by selecting a contact and long-tapping), or from the screen that shows any conversation you have had with them (via the menu). Here you can choose Remove contact to discard a contact that is of no further use (there’s the potential for old accounts to be hijacked by online criminals for disseminating spam, too) and Block contact, which features a confirmation box and the option to Report as spam should the account have messaged you unnecessarily.
Note that there is no option to manage chat history in the mobile version of Skype. To discard this, open Settings > Application Manager, select Skype then Clear data. Note that this will remove your account from the phone, so you will need to sign in again. For the best results, ensure that you have the preferred chat history settings configured on your desktop Skype client.
Maintain Privacy on Skype, Avoid Problems Later On
Above you’ll find everything you need to ensure that your Skype account is free from intrusion from other users.
As we’ve seen, however, it isn’t enough to keep your Skype presence completely free, so if you have any conversations that you want to keep completely private, don’t use Skype.
We’re certain that by following these steps you should avoid problems, but this doesn’t mean that you haven’t had issues previously. Let us know what sort of Skype privacy problems you have encountered, and what steps you took to resolve them.