US and British intelligence agencies have cracked the encryption that secures a wide range of online communications – including emails, banking transactions and phone conversations, according to newly leaked documents.
The documents provided by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden to The New York Times, ProPublica and The Guardian suggest that the spy agencies are able to decipher data even with the supposedly secure encryption designed to make it private.
The US National Security Agency, working with its British counterpart, GCHQ, accomplished the feat by using supercomputers, court orders, and some cooperation from technology companies, the documents indicate.
The Guardian report said the two spy agencies had “covert partnerships” with technology companies and internet providers which allows the insertion of “secret vulnerabilities – known as backdoors or trapdoors – into commercial encryption software.”
The British paper said the NSA spends $US250 million ($A275 million) a year on a program which works with technology companies to “covertly influence” their product designs.
The reports did not indicate which companies cooperated with the spy agencies, but they suggested that Britain’s intelligence agency was able to gain access to people’s Hotmail, Google, Yahoo and Facebook accounts.
If the reports are accurate, the highly secretive program would defeat much of the protection that is used to keep data secure and private on the internet, from emails to chats to communications using smartphones.
Joseph Hall of the Centre for Democracy and Technology, a digital rights organisation, called the latest reports “shocking”.
If the reports are true, “it means that the elements that keep information secure in transit are fundamentally undermined”, Hall told AFP.
Bruce Schneier, a cryptographic specialist who follows national security issues, described the revelations as “explosive”.
“Basically, the NSA is able to decrypt most of the internet. They’re doing it primarily by cheating, not by mathematics,” Schneier wrote on his blog.