Microsoft Corp. helped the U.S. National Security Agency dodge software
encryption to intercept user emails and Web chats, top-secret documents
The collaboration also let the surveillance agency's formerly secret PRISM electronic-spying program collect video and audio of conversations of people using Skype, an online chat and audio-video conversation service Microsoft bought 21 months ago, the documents cited by British newspaper The Guardian said.
Skype has an estimated 663 million users worldwide. The documents were leaked to the newspaper by fugitive former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden, The Guardian said.
The NSA boasted its new video access let it triple the number of Skype video calls it could collect through PRISM, the newspaper said.
"The audio portions of these sessions have been processed correctly all along, but without the accompanying video. Now, analysts will have the complete 'picture,'" a July 14, 2012, NSA document says.
Information collected through PRISM is routinely shared with the FBI and CIA, The Guardian said. One NSA document describes the collaboration as a "team sport," the newspaper reported.
Microsoft's decision to work around its own encryption helped the NSA intercept emails and Windows Live Messenger Web chats through Microsoft's new Outlook.com portal.
The workaround let the NSA see the Outlook.com communications before they were encrypted, the documents indicate.
Outlook.com is a free Web-based email service that closely mimics the interface of the Microsoft Outlook personal information manager. It supplanted Microsoft's Hotmail in February, but the cooperation began a year ago, The Guardian said.
"For PRISM, collection against Hotmail, Live and Outlook.com emails will be unaffected because PRISM collects this data prior to encryption," an NSA newsletter entry cited by The Guardian says.
Microsoft also gave PRISM access to Microsoft SkyDrive, a file hosting service that lets users upload and sync files to a "cloud storage" elsewhere and then access them from a Web browser or their local device.
SkyDrive is part of the Windows Live online services that Microsoft says lets users keep files private, share them with contacts or make them public.
Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., has said it provided the NSA with no direct access to user information.
It said in a website statement Thursday it provided the information only because the government lawfully asked for it.
"To be clear, Microsoft does not provide any government with blanket or direct access to SkyDrive, Outlook.com, Skype or any Microsoft product," the software maker said.
In a statement to The Guardian, it said, "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."
Microsoft added: "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."
Microsoft, along with Facebook Inc., Google Inc. and other Web companies, have urged Washington to let them reveal more information about government surveillance requests after The Guardian and The Washington Post started publishing Snowden's leaked documents.
The NSA and the office of National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper said in a joint statement to The Guardian Microsoft complied with "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," the statement said. "Not all countries have equivalent oversight requirements to protect civil liberties and privacy."
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