US and UK spy agencies defeat privacy and security on the internet

from US and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of
the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to
protect the privacy
of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to
top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.

The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ have broadly compromised the guarantees that internet
companies have given consumers to reassure them that their
communications, online banking and medical records would be
indecipherable to criminals or governments.

The agencies, the
documents reveal, have adopted a battery of methods in their systematic
and ongoing assault on what they see as one of the biggest threats to
their ability to access huge swathes of internet traffic – “the use of
ubiquitous encryption across the internet”.

Those methods include covert measures to ensure NSA
control over setting of international encryption standards, the use of
supercomputers to break encryption with “brute force”, and – the most
closely guarded secret of all – collaboration with technology companies
and internet service providers themselves.

Through these covert
partnerships, the agencies have inserted secret vulnerabilities – known
as backdoors or trapdoors – into commercial encryption software.

The files, from both the NSA and GCHQ, were obtained by the Guardian, and the details are being published today in partnership with the New York Times and ProPublica. They reveal:

• A 10-year NSA
program against encryption technologies made a breakthrough in 2010
which made “vast amounts” of data collected through internet cable taps
newly “exploitable”.

• The NSA
spends $250m a year on a program which, among other goals, works with
technology companies to “covertly influence” their product designs.

The secrecy of their capabilities against encryption is closely
guarded, with analysts warned: “Do not ask about or speculate on sources
or methods.”

• The NSA
describes strong decryption programs as the “price of admission for the
US to maintain unrestricted access to and use of cyberspace”.

team has been working to develop ways into encrypted traffic on the
“big four” service providers, named as Hotmail, Google, Yahoo and

The agencies insist that the ability to defeat encryption is vital to
their core missions of counter-terrorism and foreign intelligence

But security experts accused them of attacking the
internet itself and the privacy of all users. 

“Cryptography forms the
basis for trust online,” said Bruce Schneier, an encryption specialist
and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “By
deliberately undermining online security in a short-sighted effort to
eavesdrop, the NSA
is undermining the very fabric of the internet.” Classified briefings
between the agencies celebrate their success at “defeating network
security and privacy”.

“For the past decade, NSA has lead [sic] an aggressive, multi-pronged effort to break widely used internet encryption technologies,” stated a 2010 GCHQ document. “Vast amounts of encrypted internet data which have up till now been discarded are now exploitable.”

An internal agency memo noted that among British analysts shown a presentation on the NSA’s progress: “Those not already briefed were gobsmacked!”

breakthrough, which was not described in detail in the documents, meant
the intelligence agencies were able to monitor “large amounts” of data
flowing through the world’s fibre-optic cables and break its encryption,
despite assurances from internet company executives that this data was
beyond the reach of government.

The key component of the NSA’s
battle against encryption, its collaboration with technology companies,
is detailed in the US intelligence community’s top-secret 2013 budget
request under the heading “Sigint [signals intelligence] enabling”.

NSA Bullrun 1
Classified briefings between the NSA and GCHQ celebrate their
success at ‘defeating network security and privacy’. Photograph:

Funding for the program – $254.9m for this year – dwarfs that of the Prism program, which operates at a cost of $20m a year, according to previous NSA
documents. Since 2011, the total spending on Sigint enabling has topped
$800m. The program “actively engages US and foreign IT industries to
covertly influence and/or overtly leverage their commercial products’
designs”, the document states. None of the companies involved in such
partnerships are named; these details are guarded by still higher levels
of classification.

Among other things, the program is designed to
“insert vulnerabilities into commercial encryption systems”. These
would be known to the NSA, but to no one else, including ordinary customers, who are tellingly referred to in the document as “adversaries”.

design changes make the systems in question exploitable through Sigint
collection … with foreknowledge of the modification. To the consumer and
other adversaries, however, the systems’ security remains intact.”

document sets out in clear terms the program’s broad aims, including
making commercial encryption software “more tractable” to NSA
attacks by “shaping” the worldwide marketplace and continuing efforts
to break into the encryption used by the next generation of 4G phones.

the specific accomplishments for 2013, the NSA expects the program to
obtain access to “data flowing through a hub for a major communications
provider” and to a “major internet peer-to-peer voice and text
communications system”. 

Technology companies maintain that they work with the intelligence agencies only when legally compelled to do so. The Guardian has previously reported that Microsoft co-operated with the NSA
to circumvent encryption on the email and chat services.
The company insisted that it was obliged to comply with “existing or
future lawful demands” when designing its products.

documents show that the agency has already achieved another of the goals
laid out in the budget request: to influence the international
standards upon which encryption systems rely.

security experts have long suspected that the NSA has been introducing
weaknesses into security standards, a fact confirmed for the first time
by another secret document. It shows the agency worked covertly to get
its own version of a draft security standard issued by the US National
Institute of Standards and Technology approved for worldwide use in

“Eventually, NSA became the sole editor,” the document states.

The NSA’s
codeword for its decryption program, Bullrun, is taken from a major
battle of the American civil war. Its British counterpart, Edgehill, is
named after the first major engagement of the English civil war, more
than 200 years earlier.

A classification guide for NSA employees and contractors on Bullrun outlines in broad terms its goals.

“Project Bullrun deals with NSA’s
abilities to defeat the encryption used in specific network
communication technologies. Bullrun involves multiple sources, all of
which are extremely sensitive.” The document reveals that the agency has
capabilities against widely used online protocols, such as HTTPS,
voice-over-IP and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), used to protect online
shopping and banking.

The document also shows that the NSA’s
Commercial Solutions Center, ostensibly the body through which
technology companies can have their security products assessed and
presented to prospective government buyers, has another, more
clandestine role. 

It is used by the NSA
to “to leverage sensitive, co-operative relationships with specific
industry partners” to insert vulnerabilities into security products.
Operatives were warned that this information must be kept top secret “at
a minimum”.

A more general NSA
classification guide reveals more detail on the agency’s deep
partnerships with industry, and its ability to modify products. It
cautions analysts that two facts must remain top secret: that NSA makes
modifications to commercial encryption software and devices “to make
them exploitable”, and that NSA “obtains cryptographic details of
commercial cryptographic information security systems through industry

The agencies have not yet cracked all encryption
technologies, however, the documents suggest. Snowden appeared to
confirm this during a live Q&A with Guardian readers in June.
“Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of
the few things that you can rely on,” he said before warning that NSA
can frequently find ways around it as a result of weak security on the
computers at either end of the communication. 

The documents are scattered with warnings over the importance of maintaining absolute secrecy around decryption capabilities.

NSA Bullrun 2
A slide showing that the secrecy of the agencies’ capabilities against encryption is closely guarded. Photograph: Guardian 

Strict guidelines were laid down at the GCHQ
complex in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, on how to discuss projects
relating to decryption. Analysts were instructed: “Do not ask about or
speculate on sources or methods underpinning Bullrun.” This informaton
was so closely guarded, according to one document, that even those with
access to aspects of the program were warned: “There will be no ‘need to

The agencies were supposed to be “selective in which
contractors are given exposure to this information”, but it was
ultimately seen by Snowden, one of 850,000 people in the US with
top-secret clearance.
A 2009 GCHQ document spells out the significant potential consequences of any leaks, including “damage to industry relationships”.

of confidence in our ability to adhere to confidentiality agreements
would lead to loss of access to proprietary information that can save
time when developing new capability,” intelligence workers were told.
Somewhat less important to GCHQ was the public’s trust which was marked
as a moderate risk, the document stated.

“Some exploitable
products are used by the general public; some exploitable weaknesses are
well known eg possibility of recovering poorly chosen passwords,” it
said. “Knowledge that GCHQ
exploits these products and the scale of our capability would raise
public awareness generating unwelcome publicity for us and our political

The decryption effort is particularly important to GCHQ. Its strategic advantage from its Tempora program – direct taps on transatlantic fibre-optic cables of major
telecommunications corporations – was in danger of eroding as more and
more big internet companies encrypted their traffic, responding to
customer demands for guaranteed privacy.

Without attention, the 2010 GCHQ
document warned, the UK’s “Sigint utility will degrade as information
flows changes, new applications are developed (and deployed) at pace and
widespread encryption becomes more commonplace.” Documents show that
Edgehill’s initial aim was to decode the encrypted traffic certified by
three major (unnamed) internet companies and 30 types of Virtual Private
Network (VPN) – used by businesses to provide secure remote access to
their systems. By 2015, GCHQ hoped to have cracked the codes used by 15
major internet companies, and 300 VPNs.

Another program,
codenamed Cheesy Name, was aimed at singling out encryption keys, known
as ‘certificates’, that might be vulnerable to being cracked by GCHQ

Analysts on the Edgehill project were working on
ways into the networks of major webmail providers as part of the
decryption project. A quarterly update from 2012 notes the project’s
team “continue to work on understanding” the big four communication
providers, named in the document as Hotmail, Google, Yahoo and Facebook,
adding “work has predominantly been focused this quarter on Google due
to new access opportunities being developed”.

To help secure an insider advantage, GCHQ
also established a Humint Operations Team (HOT). Humint, short for
“human intelligence” refers to information gleaned directly from sources
or undercover agents. 

team was, according to an internal document, “responsible for
identifying, recruiting and running covert agents in the global
telecommunications industry.”

“This enables GCHQ to tackle some of its most challenging targets,” the report said. The efforts made by the NSA and GCHQ against encryption technologies may have negative consequences for all internet users, experts warn.

are fundamentally in conflict with good security,”
said Christopher
Soghoian, principal technologist and senior policy analyst at the
American Civil Liberties Union. “Backdoors expose all users of a
backdoored system, not just intelligence agency targets, to heightened
risk of data compromise.” This is because the insertion of backdoors in a
software product, particularly those that can be used to obtain
unencrypted user communications or data, significantly increases the
difficulty of designing a secure product.”

This was a view echoed in a recent paper by Stephanie Pell,
a former prosecutor at the US Department of Justice and non-resident
fellow at the Center for Internet and Security at Stanford Law School.

encrypted communications system with a lawful interception back door is
far more likely to result in the catastrophic loss of communications
confidentiality than a system that never has access to the unencrypted
communications of its users,” she states.

Intelligence officials
asked the Guardian, New York Times and ProPublica not to publish this
article, saying that it might prompt foreign targets to switch to new
forms of encryption or communications that would be harder to collect or

The three organisations removed some specific facts but
decided to publish the story because of the value of a public debate
about government actions that weaken the most powerful tools for
protecting the privacy of internet users in the US and worldwide.

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