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Charge it to the NSA

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The National Security Agency (NSA), with an estimated 40,000 employees, works hard to make U.S. military encryption devices rock solid, the agency is inclined to weaken commercial encryption when it can because strong encryption impedes the agency's mission of data collection.

In one instance, the spy agency forced MasterCard International, Inc. to dumb down the Secure Electronic Transaction (SET) credit-card encryption standard.

When MasterCard first thought of creating SET for credit-card encryption, "we ran over to the government to tell them what we wanted to do," said John Wankmuller, MasterCard's principal in charge of electronic commerce. However, the NSA quickly threw a damper on the company's enthusiasm. "They told us what we wouldn't do," Wankmuller said.

The NSA nixed the idea that SET should be able to encrypt the customer's entire purchase information, limiting the encrypted fields to the account number, amount and the expiring date, Wankmuller said. "In the end, it's a very small amount of data that gets encrypted."

But in other areas, the NSA has also had less confrontational contact with industry, too.

The agency played the lead role at the IETF in developing two protocols, one called IP Security and the other called Internet Key Exchange, which is gaining wide acceptance in products and among users in the automotive industry.

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