Report: Microsoft gave NSA access to encrypted messages

Microsoft has been more cooperative with the National Security Agency (NSA) than originally thought, according to a report by the Guardian. The British newspaper, which broke the story about a government surveillance program called PRISM, is revealing more details from the trove of documents it obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The Guardian says that Microsoft helped the NSA get around its own encryption by giving it access to pre-encrypted stages of its email service Outlook.com, which includes Hotmail. The newspaper adds that Microsoft worked to give the FBI access to services, like SkyDrive and Skype.

"The FBI Data Intercept Technology Unit (DITU) team is working with Microsoft to understand an additional feature in Outlook.com which allows users to create email aliases, which may affect our tasking processes," one entry in the documents obtained by the Guardian said.

According to the documents, Skype joined the PRISM program in February 2011 -- eight months before it was bought by Microsoft.

Skype's involvement has come under scrutiny because it once stated that its software could not be wiretapped. In a statement given to CNET in 2008, when it was owned by eBay, the company said: "We have not received any subpoenas or court orders asking us to perform a live interception or wiretap of Skype-to-Skype communications. In any event, because of Skype's peer-to-peer architecture and encryption techniques, Skype would not be able to comply with such a request."

Microsoft did not comment on Skype's previous claims and released this statement to CBSNews.com:

"We have clear principles which guide the response across our entire company to government demands for customer information for both law enforcement and national security issues.

First, we take our commitments to our customers and to compliance with applicable law very seriously, so we provide customer data only in response to legal processes. Second, our compliance team examines all demands very closely, and we reject them if we believe they aren't valid. Third, we only ever comply with orders about specific accounts or identifiers, and we would not respond to the kind of blanket orders discussed in the press over the past few weeks, as the volumes documented in our most recent disclosure clearly illustrate.

To be clear, Microsoft does not provide any government with blanket or direct access to SkyDrive, Outlook.com, Skype or any Microsoft product. Finally when we upgrade or update products legal obligations may in some circumstances require that we maintain the ability to provide information in response to a law enforcement or national security request. There are aspects of this debate that we wish we were able to discuss more freely. That's why we've argued for additional transparency that would help everyone understand and debate these important issues."

Another section of the document describes that the new access will save analysts time by eliminating a step that previously required a special request to the NSA's Special Source Operations.

According to the Guardian, in one part of the document the NSA says: "this new capability will result in a much more complete and timely collection response." And adds: "This success is the result of the FBI working for many months with Microsoft to get this tasking and collection solution established."

Part of the document reveals that the NSA has automated the sharing process so that agency partners can see what search terms the NSA has tasked to PRISM -- making it possible for the FBI and CIA to request a copy of the search results.

Shawn Turner, spokesman for the director of National Intelligence, and Judith Emmel, spokeswoman for the NSA released this joint statement to the Guardian:

The articles describe court-ordered surveillance -- and a US company's efforts to comply with these legally mandated requirements. The U.S. operates its programs under a strict oversight regime, with careful monitoring by the courts, Congress and the Director of National Intelligence. Not all countries have equivalent oversight requirements to protect civil liberties and privacy.

Snowden has been a fugitive from the U.S. government wanted on espionage charges. He is believed to be living at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and is seeking asylum from several nations, including including Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador.

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