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02-Feb-2017 00:15

In addition to their usual job -- attempting to crack encryption all around the world -- they play a game called the "Kryptos Kristmas Kwiz," which involves solving challenging numerical and alphabetical puzzles.

The proud winners of the competition are awarded "Kryptos" mugs.

Since then, data from Skype has been accessible to the NSA's snoops.

Software giant Microsoft, which acquired Skype in 2011, said in a statement: "We will not provide governments with direct or unfettered access to customer data or encryption keys." The NSA had been monitoring Skype even before that, but since February 2011, the service has been under order from the secret US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), to not only supply information to the NSA but also to make itself accessible as a source of data for the agency.

One example is the encryption featured in Skype, a program used by some 300 million users to conduct Internet video chat that is touted as secure. "Sustained Skype collection began in Feb 2011," reads a National Security Agency (NSA) training document from the archive of whistleblower Edward Snowden.

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Although the documents are around two years old, experts consider it unlikely the agency's digital spies have made much progress in cracking these technologies.

The "sustained Skype collection" is a further step taken by the authority in the arms race between intelligence agencies seeking to deny users of their privacy and those wanting to ensure they are protected.

There have also been some victories for privacy, with certain encryption systems proving to be so robust they have been tried and true standards for more than 20 years.

Whether a person is conducting online banking, Internet shopping or making a phone call, almost every Internet connection today is encrypted in some way.

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The entire realm of cloud computing -- that is of outsourcing computing tasks to data centers somewhere else, possibly even on the other side of the globe -- relies heavily on cryptographic security systems.

For the NSA, encrypted communication -- or what all other Internet users would call secure communication -- is "a threat".