WASHINGTON -- Microsoft has collaborated with the National Security Agency more extensively than it previously acknowledged, providing the spy agency with up-to-date access to its customer data whenever the company changes its encryption and related software technology, according to a new report based on disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden.
Quoting classified internal NSA newsletters obtained from Mr. Snowden, Britain's The Guardian newspaper reported that Microsoft had helped the agency find ways to circumvent its encryption on its Outlook.com portal's encrypted Web chat function, and that the agency was given what The Guardian described as "pre-encryption stage" access to email on Outlook, including Hotmail email.
The Guardian, which did not publish the NSA documents it quoted, said Microsoft also provided the FBI with access to its SkyDrive service, a cloud storage service with millions of users.
Microsoft, according to The Guardian, also worked with the FBI to study how Outlook let users create email aliases, while Skype, now owned by Microsoft, worked with the government to help it collect both the video and audio of conversations. It also reported that information collected through the NSA program code-named Prism was shared with both the FBI and the CIA.
In a statement, Microsoft said it provided access to its systems only when required by court orders. "We only ever comply with orders about specific accounts or identifiers, and we would not respond to the kind of blanket orders discussed in the press over the past few weeks," the statement said. "To be clear, Microsoft does not provide any government with blanket or direct access to SkyDrive, Outlook.com, Skype or any Microsoft product. Finally, when we upgrade or update products, legal obligations may in some circumstances require that we maintain the ability to provide information in response to a law enforcement or national security request."
The latest disclosure from documents Mr. Snowden leaked underscores the increasingly close ties between NSA and the high-tech community. Microsoft, Facebook and other firms have been forced to address questions about their cooperation with the agency after Mr. Snowden's disclosure of the Prism surveillance program.
Many of the companies have repeatedly denied they agreed to blanket collection requests from the government, despite evidence that the government has for years collected huge amounts of phone and Internet data from U.S. citizens. An NSA Internet metadata collection program revealed by Mr. Snowden, for example, was halted in 2011 only after two Senate Intelligence Committee members began to question its value.
Fearing a negative public response to their cooperation, some Silicon Valley firms are starting to push back openly against the security agency. Yahoo, for example, is now asking the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret court that rules on government data-collection requests, to let it make public the record of its 2008 challenge to the constitutionality of the law requiring it to provide customer data to the agency.
Yahoo said in a public filing with the FISA court this week that releasing documents about the 2008 case would allow it "to demonstrate that it objected strenuously to the directives that are now the subject of debate, and objected at every stage of the proceeding, but that these objections were overruled, and its request for a stay was denied."
Signs of a popular backlash against the security agency's large-scale collection of Americans' personal data have convinced a leading privacy advocate in Congress that the Obama administration may soon begin to back away from the most aggressive components of the agency's domestic surveillance programs.
The advocate, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a Senate Intelligence Committee member, said in an interview Thursday that he believed that the security agency might soon abandon bulk collection of phone calling data of millions of Americans.
The current controversy over the agency's surveillance policies was first set off after Mr. Snowden leaked a secret FISA court order telling Verizon to turn over all customers' calling data. Mr. Wyden now believes that the White House is starting to recognize that the program raises so many privacy concerns that it is willing to drop it.
Mr. Wyden added that he believed the continuing controversy Mr. Snowden prompted had changed the political calculus in Congress over the security- civil liberties balance, which has been heavily weighted toward security since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.