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Reports: Spy Agencies Getting Past Tech Company Encryption

Flickr Photo/Chris Hardie

Reports from the New York Times, the Guardian and ProPublica cast light on how spy agencies are obtaining private data. The news organizations say the US National Security Agency is using covert partnerships with technology companies to weaken encryption software.

Encryption, or digital scrambling, protects everything from credit card numbers to love letters from being read while moving around the Internet.

The news organizations report that the National Security Agency is spending millions to influence technology companies so that messages are easier for the agency to decode. Another agency approach is to circumvent the encryption. The similar British agency, Government Security Headquarters, is also involved.

The news organizations say similar British government efforts are targeted at the "Big Four:" Google, Microsoft's Hotmail/Outlook, Yahoo and Facebook.

Google replied in a statement that it does not provide any government with access to its systems.

As for recent reports that the US government has found ways to circumvent our security systems, we have no evidence of any such thing ever occurring. We provide user data to governments only in accordance with the law.

Microsoft says it does not provide any government with direct, unfettered access to data. In aletter posted on the company’s website, Microsoft’s legal counsel said "when we are legally obligated to comply with demands we pull the specified content from our servers where it sits in an unencrypted state, and then we provide it to the government agency."

Microsoft and Google are asking the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court court for the right to tell the public about how many orders to deliver data they receive and how many consumer accounts are affected.

A spokesman for Microsoft said the two companies filed a motion last week saying they want to be able to say even more. In the court filings, the companies say they want to defend their reputations with consumers and address privacy fears.