Cracking SSL to decrypt internet traffic has long been on the NSA’s wish list. Last September, the Guardian reported that the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ had “successfully cracked” much of the online encryption we rely on to secure email and other sensitive transactions and data.
According to documents the paper obtained from Snowden, GCHQ had specifically been working to develop ways into the encrypted traffic of Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Hotmail to decrypt traffic in near-real time, and there were suggestions that they might have succeeded. “Vast amounts of encrypted internet data which have up till now been discarded are now exploitable,” GCHQ reported in one top-secret 2010 document. Although this was dated two years before the Heartbleed vulnerability existed, it highlights the agency’s efforts to get at encrypted traffic.
The Snowden documents cite a number of methods the spy agencies have used under a program codenamed “Project Bullrun” to undermine encryption or do end-runs around it — including efforts to compromise encryption standards and work with companies to install backdoors in their products. But at least one part of the program focused on undermining SSL. Under Bullrun, the Guardian noted, the NSA “has capabilities against widely used online protocols, such as HTTPS, voice-over-IP and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), used to protect online shopping and banking.”