UK and US intelligence agencies have unlocked the technology used to encrypt online services, including email, online banking and medical records.
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According to The Guardian in partnership with the New York Times and ProPublica, the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK’s equivalent GCHQ have been able to hack online encryption relied on by millions of internet users to protect their personal data.
The new documents have been leaked to The Guardian by whistleblower Edward Snowden (pictured), who is wanted in the US on espionage charges and has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.
The documents state that GCHQ has been working on methods to access encrypted traffic from the big four providers – Hotmail, Google, Yahoo and Facebook.
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It is reported that the NSA worked with unnamed technology companies and internet service providers to insert "back doors" into their software to allow access to the data before it was encrypted. The intelligence agency is also said to have used supercomputers to break encryption standards with “brute force”.
The documents reveal that the NSA spends $250m (£160m) a year on the programme, which began 10 years ago.
Both agencies state that their actions are vital in foreign intelligence gathering and fighting terrorism.