Think You're Safe From Prying Eyes Online? Not If the NSA Is Watching

Modern encryption technology uses complex encryption algorithms to turn data into undecipherable gibberish before it's transferred across the Internet. The jumbled data is received at the other end and an encryption key is used to decode the ciphertext. The use of this technology has led most people transferring sensitive data across the web using modern encryption techniques to think they're relatively safe from prying eyes.

According to documents released by Edward Snowden, a tightly-guarded program called BULLRUN is currently in the hands of the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) that can be used by those with the required clearance to decipher all but the most sophisticated encryption technology. Top secret documents released by theguardian indicate the NSA has the ability to break at least some of the encryption technologies used in TSL/SSL, HTTPS, SSH, VPNs, VoIP and WEBMAIL, and possible other encryption technology as well.

When you consider the aforementioned technologies are the backbone of secure communications across the Net, it appears those with the right clearance have pretty much a free pass to view whatever they want to online, regardless of the technology used to encrypt it. At the very least, they're able to view banking information, medical records, e-mails, Internet searches and have the ability to listen in on any phone call made using VoIP technology.

Perhaps even scarier is the possibility the companies claiming to offer secure encryption may be working directly with the NSA to provide backdoors into their programs and products. Microsoft and Skype are both implicated in documents released by Snowden in July. They aren't the only ones. It isn't known exactly how many companies are cooperating, but if the big fish are playing along, you can bet a number of the smaller fish are, too. While these companies publicly claim to be secure, they may be allowing government agencies free reign of your data. 

So, what exactly does this mean for the average person?

It probably doesn't mean much, unless you're being watched. Short of pulling the plug, it appears the average user has little recourse against the spying eyes of the powers that be. Still, it's a good idea to be careful what you say, lest you trigger an algorithm somewhere and end up on someone's list.