Civil Liberties

NSA Knows

Secret digital back doors


Two decades ago, the National Security Agency (NSA) sought legislation requiring a "back door" in all public encryption technologies, enabling the agency to monitor electronic communications even when the parties sought to shield them from prying eyes. That push failed. The NSA then embarked on an effort to accomplish essentially the same goal in secret.

The New York Times, ProPublica, and the London Guardian reported in September that the NSA had worked aggressively to crack public encryption technologies, making even the most secure communications vulnerable to government snooping. They cited a 2010 memo that described a briefing to the Government Communications Headquarters, a British intelligence service, that says the NSA has led a "multipronged effort to break widely used Internet encryption technologies." The document declares that "vast amounts of encrypted Internet data which have up till now been discarded are now exploitable."

The memo was one of thousands of leaked documents related to the NSA's activities. The documents hinted at the agency's strategies, which included bypassing cryptography to intercept communications before and after they are encoded as well as secret partnerships with major technology companies such as Microsoft.