Documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor, make clear that the agency has never met an encryption system that it has not tried to penetrate. And it frequently tries to take the easy way out. Because modern cryptography can be so hard to break, even using the brute force of the agency’s powerful supercomputers, the agency prefers to collaborate with big software companies and cipher authors, getting hidden access built right into their systems.The New York Times, The Guardian and ProPublica recently reported that the agency now has access to the codes that protect commerce and banking systems, trade secrets and medical records, and everyone’s e-mail and Internet chat messages, including virtual private networks.
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In 2006, a federal agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, helped build an international encryption system to help countries and industries fend off computer hacking and theft. Unbeknown to the many users of the system, a different government arm, the National Security Agency, secretly inserted a “back door” into the system that allowed federal spies to crack open any data that was encoded using its technology.
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