The National Security Agency has circumvented most of the encryption methods used to protect the privacy of everyday Internet communications, according to news reports.
The agency, The New York Times
reports, uses "supercomputers, technical trickery, court orders and behind-the-scenes persuasion" to crack much of the digital scrambling that is used to protect sensitive Internet communications.
The Times' report is based on documents leaked by fugitive former NSA subcontractor Edward Snowden, who is living under temporary asylum in Russia. Industry officials also were interviewed for the article.
The agency's efforts — under a highly classified program code-named Bullrun — has focused on undermining the scrambling that "guards commerce and banking systems, protects sensitive data like trade secrets and medical records, and automatically secures the e-mails, Web searches, Internet chats and phone calls of Americans and others around the world," the Times reports.
"Many users assume — or have been assured by Internet companies — that their data is safe from prying eyes, including those of the government, and the NSA wants to keep it that way," according to the Times. "The agency treats its recent successes in deciphering protected information as among its most closely guarded secrets."
According to the documents leaked by Snowden, the NSA began investing billions of dollars starting in 2000 in a secret campaign to "preserve its ability to eavesdrop," the Times reports.
The agency has "deployed custom-built, superfast computers to break codes, and began collaborating with technology companies in the United States and abroad to build entry points into their products," the Times reports.
The documents do not identify which companies have participated, the Times said.
Under the Bullrun program, the NSA "hacked into target computers to snare messages before they were encrypted," the Times reports.
Further, the agency "used its influence as the world’s most experienced code maker to covertly introduce weaknesses into the encryption standards followed by hardware and software developers around the world," according to the publication.
“For the past decade, NSA has led an aggressive, multipronged effort to break widely used Internet encryption technologies,” said a 2010 memo that described a briefing about the agency's accomplishments.
The document was prepared for employees of the NSA's British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters, the Times reports.
"Cryptanalytic capabilities are now coming online," the memo continued. "Vast amounts of encrypted Internet data which have up till now been discarded are now exploitable.”
When the British analysts, who often work closely with the NSA, first learned about the Bullrun program, another memo said, “those not already briefed were gobsmacked!”
Further, an intelligence budget document written by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, indicates that Bullrun remains crucial to the NSA's surveillance efforts.
“We are investing in groundbreaking cryptanalytic capabilities to defeat adversarial cryptography and exploit Internet traffic,” Clapper wrote in his budget request for the current fiscal year, the Times reports.
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