The National Security Agency is winning its long-running secret war on encryption, using supercomputers, technical trickery, court orders and behind-the-scenes persuasion to undermine the major tools protecting the privacy of everyday communications in the Internet age, according to newly disclosed documents.
The agency has circumvented or cracked much of the encryption, or digital scrambling, that guards global 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 documents
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 N.S.A. wants to keep it that way....
Beginning in 2000, as encryption tools were gradually blanketing the Web, the N.S.A. invested billions of dollars in a clandestine campaign to preserve its ability to eavesdrop. Having lost a public battle in the 1990s to insert its own “back door” in all encryption, it set out to accomplish the same goal by stealth.
Some of the agency’s most intensive efforts have focused on the encryption in universal use in the United States, including Secure Sockets Layer, or SSL; virtual private networks, or VPNs; and the protection used on fourth-generation, or 4G, smartphones. Many Americans, often without realizing it, rely on such protection every time they send an e-mail, buy something online, consult with colleagues via their company’s computer network, or use a phone or a tablet on a 4G network.
According to an intelligence budget document leaked by Mr. Snowden, the N.S.A. spends more than $250 million a year on its Sigint Enabling Project, which “actively engages the U.S. and foreign IT industries to covertly influence and/or overtly leverage their commercial products’ designs” to make them “exploitable.” Sigint is the acronym for signals intelligence, the technical term for electronic eavesdropping.
By this year, the Sigint Enabling Project had found ways inside some of the encryption chips that scramble information for businesses and governments, either by working with chipmakers to insert back doors or by exploiting security flaws, according to the documents....
At Microsoft, as The Guardian has reported, the N.S.A. worked with company officials to get pre-encryption access to Microsoft’s most popular services, including Outlook e-mail, Skype Internet phone calls and chats, and SkyDrive, the company’s cloud storage service.
Microsoft asserted that it had merely complied with “lawful demands” of the government, and in some cases, the collaboration was clearly coerced. Some companies have been asked to hand the government the encryption keys to all customer communications, according to people familiar with the government’s requests.
N.S.A. documents show that the agency maintains an internal database of encryption keys for specific commercial products, called a Key Provisioning Service, which can automatically decode many messages. If the necessary key is not in the collection, a request goes to the separate Key Recovery Service, which tries to obtain it.
How keys are acquired is shrouded in secrecy, but independent cryptographers say many are probably collected by hacking into companies’ computer servers, where they are stored...
Simultaneously, the N.S.A. has been deliberately weakening the international encryption standards adopted by developers. One goal in the agency’s 2013 budget request was to “influence policies, standards and specifications for commercial public key technologies,” the most common encryption method.
Cryptographers have long suspected that the agency planted vulnerabilities in a standard adopted in 2006 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and later by the International Organization for Standardization, which has 163 countries as members.
Classified N.S.A. memos appear to confirm that the fatal weakness, discovered by two Microsoft cryptographers in 2007, was engineered by the agency...
Even agency programs ostensibly intended to guard American communications are sometimes used to weaken protections. The N.S.A.’s Commercial Solutions Center, for instance, invites the makers of encryption technologies to present their products to the agency with the goal of improving American cybersecurity. But a top-secret N.S.A. document suggests that the agency’s hacking division uses that same program to develop and “leverage sensitive, cooperative relationships with specific industry partners” to insert vulnerabilities into Internet security products.
By introducing such back doors, the N.S.A. has surreptitiously accomplished what it had failed to do in the open...
This is close to a textbook definition of a rogue agency.
One small but provocative aspect of some of these programs is the names given to them, such as "Manassas" and "Bullrun" In the U.S., and "Edgehill" in the UK. These are names from the countries' respective civil wars. A civil war is a conflict within a country, either between competing would-be governments... or by the existing government against the people.