For millions of customers Skype is a neat way to talk on the cheap using the Net. For the authorities, however, it has become nothing less than a private channel for criminals to plot mayhem without detection - or so it is alleged.

The Italian police apparently hate it, the Germans hate it, and so do (although they refuse to discuss it) do the police in the UK. If you believe some accounts, the US National Security Agency is now so obsessed with it (see below) that they have put its breaking ahead of the next watching North Korea and Iran in terms of computing priorities.

The popular issue of criminals using encrypted applications to avoid detection goes back at least as far as the advent of the Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) email encryption software by Phil Zimmermann in the early 1990s. As Skype is finding to its cost (and as Zimmermann nearly found to his) it's an issue that can be hard to shake off once it's clamped to your brand.

There is no doubt Skype is being used by criminals to communicate, but so are plenty of other IM and voice software systems. Skype's problem is not that it uses encryption, but that it refuses to say what type and scheme is being used, and the application itself has a long history of stealthiness designed to stop it simply being blocked as it opens a channel. Skype is just too sneaky for its own good.

So big has the Skype issue become to some people (especially journalists) that being able to report that someone has comprehensively broken its inner workings has taken on a status not far short of finding a unicorn in the Amazon or photographing the abominable snowman.

The latest piece in this theatre of the absurd was the story on the Register that a ‘source' reckoned the NSA would pay any company able to hack Skype "billions" for its trouble. The idea that any breaking any encryption scheme is merely a matter of money is naïve, and that's before you even point out that there might be easier ways to destroy it such as just firmly asking the engineers at Skype.

Not far behind in the silliness stakes was a suggestion in the same story that the NSA might be on the point of ‘cracking' Skype, as if cracking competent encryption was just a matter of having some magic key or a big enough supercomputer to plough through all the possibilities in real time.

In fact, some people think they already have and that Skype's brilliance has just been hyped to lull people into a false sense of security, but they are no doubt dismissed as working for US intelligence.

Skype is not the problem ultimately; encryption is and it's been out the bag for many decades to the extent that it can't and won't be put back using a magic wand and the words ‘von Neumann takes sledgehammer to ENIAC'.

Skype is not about to be ‘broken' at any price. Can it and programs like it ever be beaten by the computers of that generation? The authorities would be better advised to create a small mathematical crack and use that to put enough FUD in the minds of criminals.