Major Tech Companies Helped NSA Monitor the Internet

The National Security Agency (NSA) has secured private data from huge tech companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft, as a leak from whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed. But while some of these companies resisted the NSA, others worked together wholeheartedly to share their users' information.

According to a Sept. 5 report from The New York Times, the NSA has been collaborating with tech companies since 2000. During the '90s, the NSA attempted to install its own backdoor called the Clipper Chip into major websites, but its plan fell through. Since then, it has been courting the companies for cooperation directly.

The New York Times reports that the NSA's 2013 budget included a request for money to foster "partnerships with major telecommunications carriers to shape the global network to benefit other collection accesses," where "collection accesses" is a nice way of saying "listening in."

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Although the NSA documents did not specify which companies lent their support willingly, The Guardian reported in July that Microsoft had been one of them. Microsoft attempted to explain its role but was not clear on the extent of its involvement, and succeeded only in confusing the issue further. While there's no definitive evidence from either the NSA or Microsoft, reports from both The Guardian and The New York Times suggest that the two entities worked together without coercion.

Microsoft claimed that it had to take future legal demands into account even when designing its software, which indicates that it may have been working alongside the NSA for quite some time — perhaps even since 2000. This also suggests that the NSA may have easier access to data in Microsoft products than to software from other manufacturers — or perhaps Microsoft is just worse at hiding its relationship with the NSA.

If Microsoft is in cahoots with the NSA, the extent of what the government could access is staggering. In addition to providing personal email service through (formerly Hotmail), Microsoft also handles a huge amount of business email through the Outlook email application, file storage through SkyDrive and corporate data through Windows Server software.

As more details emerge about the NSA's surveillance, the public may learn the identities of the NSA's corporate collaborators. This will help keep consumers fully informed when they're deciding which software to purchase or online service to use.

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Marshall Honorof

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.