Every day, around 4.9 million people start Skype conversations, while there are more than 600 million Skype members dotted across the world. Businesses often rely on Skype to contact clients cheaply or keep track of remote workers, while the app has become a vital bridge between students abroad and their folks back home. But does it have a darker side?
In the past, Skype wasn’t always the most secure messaging option, with numerous security alerts – and high profile efforts by the owner Microsoft to defuse customer worries. More importantly for our purposes here, the app doesn’t have a true global reach. Some countries are able to block or otherwise obstruct Skype, making it impossible to call home, while companies and schools can impose local blocks.
Both insecurity and official obstruction make it important to find a workaround. After all, Skype is here to stay, and with Microsoft’s backing, it’s the premier voice-over-IP app. So we have to use it.
And fortunately, there are tools to help us do so. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) offer an off-the-shelf remedy for Skype blocks while adding an extra layer of encryption to shield conversations. Let’s look into more detail about how this works, and what the best VPNs for Skype are in 2019.
Choosing the best VPN to unblock Skype
Before we get into the details, here are some of the world’s leading VPNs for Skype. All of them will perform reliably, and won’t cost too much to install.
1. ExpressVPN ‣
Based in the British Virgin Islands, ExpressVPN specializes in Skype unblocking, promising to work around blocking filters at work or school.
It also works around “VoP limits.” These are essentially forms of throttling, which recognize Skype traffic and limit how much users can transmit. ISPs, phone companies, and governments are notorious for implementing them but ExpressVPN gets around them easily. So it’s clearly the number one choice for Skype users.
2. NordVPN ‣
Often recognized as the world’s finest all-around VPN, NordVPN has also tailored its services to Skype users. NordVPN constantly scours the globe for blocking operations and knows exactly which countries are restricting voice over IP, but it also neutralizes local blocking operations.
So, whether you’re heading to China for a business trip or using Skype at college, it should do the trick.
Generally seen as the premier VPN for unblocking Skype in Asia and Oceania, Astrill VPN is a Seychelles-based provider with a reputation for speed and reliability.
It doesn’t just focus on Skype, either, and is optimized for WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, and Viber. So if you habitually use numerous communication apps and want to take them on the road to Singapore, China, or Australia, it’s a very handy app to have on your system or phone.
Countries blocking or regulating Skype usage
Why should you install any of these VPNs? The problem is simple, and obvious to anyone who has tried to use Skype in repressive jurisdictions.
Skype is seen as a potentially subversive tool in many countries. With its use of encryption, low call costs, and global reach, the phone/video app enables dissidents to instantly communicate with anyone in the world. That’s a very dangerous ability for citizens to have, from the perspective of Beijing’s Great Firewall operators, or the censors in Saudi Arabia.
As a result, Skype banning has become depressingly widespread, raising the need for VPNs across a host of major countries. Here are the countries where full or partial Skype bans have been implemented (that we know of):
- China: While not officially banned, Skype has been suppressed by Beijing, having disappeared from app databases since 2017. The reason is partly due to official fears of information flowing freely across borders, but the ban isn’t total. Plenty of people testify that Skype can be accessed if the right digital tools are employed.
- Bangladesh: Skype was banned following political disturbances in 2018, then reinstated, but its position is far from secure.
- UAE: The Emirates sparked public ire in 2019 when the government cracked down on Skype, due to its violation of the UAE’s digital licensing policies.
- Morocco: Skype has been banned a couple of times, most notably in 2016 when political protests erupted.
- Saudi Arabia: Again, the ban has been off-and-on, with periods of total repression mixed with episodes of liberalization.
- Russia: Skype has been under pressure in Russia (which hopes to create its own version), and partial bans have been imposed from time to time.
- Kuwait: Banned by government directive, Skype often works with a VPN installed.
- Oman: Again, government regulations in this authoritarian emirate seek to repress Skype.
- Azerbaijan: In its war against democratic campaigners, Azerbaijan has targeted VoIP in a big way, leaving Skype inaccessible.
- Pakistan: From time to time, Pakistan has imposed total Skype blackouts for security reasons.
How safe is Skype?
What if you can access Skype without any problems? Does that mean that a VPN isn’t required? Unfortunately, not.
Skype has tightened up its security features in recent years:
- Now, all conversations are guarded by end-to-end encryption, providing they take place between two Skype users.
- Instant messages sent over Skype are protected by TLS encryption, or AES for direct messages between two Skype clients (which is the gold standard for global encryption).
The version of AES used is called Rijndael, has a 256-bit cipher, and employs 1536 or 2048-bit RSA authentication. That’s pretty solid.
However, Skype accounts have been highly vulnerable to hackers in the past. For instance, until a 2018 patch, malware could be used to run DLL hijacks which could commandeer entire systems. Microsoft also has a history of handing access keys to the National Security Agency, which should raise some alarm bells.
There have also been historical allegations of data logging and providing these logs to law enforcement organizations on request. The FBI has actively sought to procure Skype data (implying that rich archives are kept by Microsoft), so there’s room for concern here.
What about a Skype video call?
Despite these concerns, Skype video calls are actually pretty safe to carry out. As we noted above, Skype routinely applies AES-256 encryption to video calls, as long as they are between two Skype users. The app also allows Skype users to contact external individuals, and this is where security concerns can arise.
For instance, if you use Skype to make a call to a smartphone that isn’t using the app, encryption won’t be applied. And normal speech calls to landlines aren’t protected, either. These cases don’t generally apply to video calls using the app. Instead, the main dangers regard speech calls. So if you routinely use Skype to keep in touch with family back home, adding VPN encryption and anonymization makes sense.
The only real danger about video calls relates to Microsoft. All calls have to be routed through Microsoft’s servers, and what they do with the data isn’t entirely clear. Allegations have been made about the company scanning Skype calls for “fraud,” so it may not be wise to see video calls as completely secure.
Is Skype safe from hackers?
None of this would be such a worry without credible concerns about malware hacking. In 2016, we learned that hackers had created malware (called T9000) which could attach itself to Skype and log all calls. The malware could do so if granted permission – which too many people are happy to do.
As a result, thousands of Skype accounts have been hacked in the past, turning them into spam factories. Sometimes, this is due to malware. At other times, it has been due to data leaks of Skype passwords. Either way, users should be aware that Skype isn’t 100% secure from hackers. Regular password changes and constant vigilance are always advisable.
Skype has made its calls more secure, and if you chat with other Skype users, you should be safe from harm. But watch permissions from suspicious apps, and use a VPN to chat with people outside the Skype network.
Lastly, use a VPN to make sure you are safe online no matter who you’re calling or what you’re talking about.