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Microsoft thumbs nose at NSA, hardens crypto for Outlook, OneDrive

New server-side feature makes it harder for spies to snoop

3-rotor WWII Enigma

Microsoft has flipped the switch to activate stronger encryption on its OneDrive and Outlook.com cloud services as part of a broader effort to make it harder for the NSA and other spying agencies to snoop on its customers' data.

Specifically, Outlook.com now supports TLS encryption on all connections to its servers, both incoming and outgoing.

Technically, that means any email sent using the service will be fully encrypted during transit, from end to end. But for that to actually happen, the receiving mail server must also support TLS encryption. Many don't.

To that end, Microsoft has been working with major email providers to ensure that they get TLS up and running on their servers. In a Tuesday blog post, Matt Thomlinson, VP of Redmond's Trustworthy Computing group, named Deutsche Telekom, Mail.ru, and Yandex as three examples of companies that have partnered with Redmond in this effort.

In addition, both Outlook.com and OneDrive now support Perfect Forward Secrecy (PFS) in their encryption. An alternative algorithm for crypto key exchange, PFS makes it harder for eavesdroppers to decrypt communications because it never sends the secret session key in full over the network.

In the case of OneDrive, PFS encryption is now used whether the client is connecting via the OneDrive website, mobile apps, or the desktop sync client.

"Our goal is to provide even greater protection for data across all the great Microsoft services you use and depend on every day," Thomlinson wrote. "This effort also helps us reinforce that governments use appropriate legal processes, not technical brute force, if they want access to that data."

In other words, although Microsoft has pledged to resist when governments try to grab its customers' data via warrants and other legal instruments – for its largest enterprise and government customers, at least – it isn't convinced that the NSA or some other snoop outfit won't try to use surreptitious wiretaps to gain the same info.

In a speech at a recent event, Brad Smith, Microsoft's top lawyer, said the NSA domestic surveillance scandal is causing foreign companies to grow reluctant to do business in the US, and that unless the US government acts to curb the spy agencies' activities, it risks doing serious damage to the nation's tech industry.

"Last fall people in Washington, including at the White House and Congress, had a view that this was an issue that needed to be addressed but might blow over ... it is not blowing over ... in June of 2014 it is clear it is getting worse not better," Smith said. ®

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